Professional Treasure Hunter Gregg Stemm 'Secrecy Is Key in Our Business'

The underwater archaeology company Odyssey Marine Exploration recently found the British warship HMS Victory on the floor of the English Channel. SPIEGEL ONLINE spoke with company founder Gregg Stemm about gold coins, recalcitrant governments and secrecy.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You have said that your find of the HMS Victory is the most significant shipwreck find to date. How long had you been looking for it?

Greg Stemm: We have been working on the Atlas mapping project in the English Channel for four years now. We are searching an area of about 5,000 square miles (12,950 square kilometers), and in the course we have turned up a total of 273 shipwrecks, including some previously unidentified U-Boats -- and the HMS Victory.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You stumbled across the HMS Victory by chance?

Stemm: We knew it was in the search area, so it was not by chance. We were always very aware of the possibility that it could happen. But we did not specifically look for it, unlike in the case of HMS Sussex in 2001.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The HMS Sussex reportedly carries a treasure worth up to €4 billion, which remains in the wreck due to a dispute with the Spanish government. How much do you expect to get out of the HMS Victory?

Stemm: As a publicly traded company, we cannot put out a number. We can only say that based on historical records there are probably 100,000 gold coins on board.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The Discovery Channel estimates the value of the wreck at $1 billion. Is that realistic?

Stemm: If the gold coins are anything like the ones from the SS Republic, it might turn out to be a very big number. The SS Republic contained 3,000 gold coins, which we sold for $25 million.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Would you call yourself a treasure hunter?

Stemm: No, that sounds as if we just picked up treasures from the ocean and did not care about anything else. That is not what we do.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You alway stress the scientific part of what you do rather than the quest for profit. Yet you are CEO of a publicly traded company and have to think about your investors.

Stemm: It is a fusion of business and science. Some people might be cynical about it, but I see no difference to medicine, chemistry and other sciences. They all earn money, yet nobody would doubt that they do valuable scientific work. You can be a good businessman and a good scientist at the same time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Still, marine archaeologists regard your trade with suspicion. They say commercial salvage companies destroy wrecks and disturb the dead.

Stemm: They do not have any evidence. During our work in the English Channel, we investigated 25 shipwreck sites. We took only very few artifacts and delivered them to the British government. We do not talk about marine archaeology, we practice it. Excavating a wreck like the HMS Victory costs $30 million. No government is willing to spend that kind of money -- even less so in a recession.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Odyssey has repeatedly run into trouble with governments, notably that of Spain. You located HMS Sussex off Gibraltar seven years ago, but the Spanish government has since prevented you from conducting further explorations of the site. What happens now with the wreck?

Stemm: The project is on hold. Spain claims the site as its territory. Britain thinks otherwise. We are waiting for them to resolve their dispute. We have a contract with the British government that gives us the exclusive rights for a period of 20 years to excavate the site. So we still have time. The HMS Sussex will not go away.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In 2007, you upset the Spanish government by taking 500,000 gold and silver coins from another wreck off Gibraltar, codenamed the "Black Swan." The government in Madrid sued you for stealing a national treasure. The case is still in court. Was that operation a mistake in retrospect?

Stemm: There are some people in the Cultural Ministry of Spain who do not like Odyssey's business model. We did not know the coins belonged to anybody. What do you do, if you find a huge open coinfield on the sea floor? You bring the coins to safety and hand the case over to a judge. Secrecy is key in our business if you do not want half a dozen other companies exploring your site.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What's next for the HMS Victory? Will you excavate the whole site?

Stemm: We are in negotiations with the British government about a partnership agreement. Depending on the outcome, we will start the excavation.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: How certain are you of finding the gold treasure?

Stemm: I would be very surprised, if it wasn't there.

Interview conducted by Carsten Volkery in London