Tuesday 12 December 2017

Price of bullion leads to sea-bed treasure hunt

Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

The high price of gold and silver bullion has led to a "treasure hunt" of sea-bed wrecks off the Irish coast.

A source at the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht says heritage orders will be applied "wherever the Government sees fit", as improved technology increasingly allows treasure firms access to deeper and more hazardous locations in Irish national waters -- and privateers race to get to wrecks before Irish legislation prohibits them from doing so.

The world's largest marine commodity recovery operator, Omex, is already preparing to extract tens of millions worth of silver bullion from Irish waters within weeks.

Only once has an underwater heritage order been applied to a shipwreck -- in reaction to the investigation by a private exploration firm of the Lusitania in 1995. After a lengthy court battle with the owners, which ended in a compromise agreement in 2006, the heritage rights of the Irish State were eventually upheld.

The department source adds: "Treasure hunters are currently most interested in First World War wrecks, not only because they are most likely to have valuable cargoes on board, but because there is an increasingly small window in which to harvest their contents."

Under Irish law, wrecks which are 100 years old automatically become national monuments. This means treasure hunters seeking unfettered access in order to cash in on currently high precious metal values need to get in before the deadline.

Officials are concerned that treasure hunters might turn their attentions to unprotected wrecks like that of the Aud, the German vessel scuppered off Cork harbour in 1916 and laden with munitions for the Rising -- or to a series of German U-boats located off the Cork coast, which heritage officials believe have a high historic value to the State.

Odyssey Marine Exploration (Omex) -- a Nasdaq-quoted US exploration company -- told its shareholders that it is coming into Irish coastal waters this spring to harvest silver bullion from the wreck of the SS Mantola, a First World War wreck located within the 200 miles zone which OMEX says contains $18m (€13m) worth of silver bullion.

Omex, which features in the TV series Treasure Quest, is entangled in a court battle with the Spanish government after the company hoovered up 17 tons of silver and gold from an 1804 wreck, which the Spanish government is now claiming. With its share price affected by its perceived lack of success in the so-called "black swan" case, Omex announced its discovery last year of two British bullion ships off the Irish coast, the SS Gairsoppa and the SS Mantola. Omex is backed by the British government, which claims ownership and has made a deal to receive 20 per cent of the salvage.

A game of cat and mouse appears to have ensued between Irish state officials and Omex, which has turned up unexpectedly in Irish waters on a number of occasions and has been intercepted more than once by the Irish naval services eager to see what they are doing. Last year Omex was discovered exploring a wreck 25 miles off the Great Blasket and its vessel was boarded. The crew were cooperative and there is no suggestion unlawful activities were taking place.

"The heritage value of the Mantola is questionable and it is wholly owned by the British government; so the Irish State has few rights regarding this ship. However, any attempts to interfere with wrecks which are historically important to Ireland, like that of the Aud, will certainly produce an immediate reaction," said a source close to the Heritage Department.

Following the Lusitania case, heritage officials have found themselves in a bigger race against treasure hunters to locate and protect historically valuable wrecks. Over the last six years the Department has located and catalogued 3,300 of the estimated 10,000 or so wrecks thought to lie in Irish waters and hundreds of them date from WWI, particularly off the coasts of Donegal and Cork.

Eoghan Kieran of Moore Group, a private marine archaeological company, says, "When we do have a wreck of agreed historic significance -- whatever the law says -- we don't really have the resources to protect it. You can't keep an eye on every single wreck and Ireland's waters are positively teeming with them, given that they were the traditional hunting grounds for German U-boats. These are the wrecks that the treasure hunters will be chasing in the years ahead."

Sunday Independent

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