Treasure hunts might sound like the stuff of storybook pirates, but a Florida company knows that there's a real fortune hiding beneath the waves, and they're determined to find it.
Odyssey Marine Exploration, based in Tampa, has been operating high tech treasure hunts for over 15 years, and now they're expanding their hunt for gold to include undersea mining, detailing for the first time the promise of rich deposits on the ocean floor.
"There's actually gold and silver laying on the seafloor being made by nature," said Mark Gordon, Odyssey's chief operating officer. Gordon spoke to ABC's Sharyn Alfonsi on today's Conversation.
"Shipwrecks yield really neat manmade items -- gold, silver artifacts," said Gordon. "And deep-ocean mining yields pure commodities."
Odyssey has already had a number of major successes, recovering hundreds of millions of dollars worth of loot. They've found coins from the Civil War-era wreck of the SS Republic, as well as bronze cannons from the HMS Victory, which they uncovered in cooperation with the British Government. The company is also the star of its own reality television show, "Treasure Quest," on the Discovery Channel.
Based on its research, Odyssey believes that there are at least 100 sites, worth at least $50 million, and they say that these sites are free of any of the sticky ownership issues that have embroiled some high-profile finds. Odyssey's 2007 discovery of 17 tons of gold and silver coins from a site called the Black Swan is still under dispute with the Spanish government. That haul is said to be worth $500 million.
"The value of the coins -- because they're collectible -- are actually a huge premium to their underlying gold or silver value," Gordon said.
Odyssey also has plans to offer investors a chance to get in on the hunt. They plan to allow accredited investors the chance to buy into some future shipwreck expeditions, helping to fund the cost of the search and share in any of the spoils. The company is also traded publicly on the Nasdaq market under the ticker symbol OMEX.
Since April, the company has been offering a similar investment opportunity through a British company, Robert Fraser and Partners, contracting out its treasure hunting services. Investors are allowed to review Odyssey's research and hire their own consultants before they sign on for the search. It's certainly high risk -- investors could get nothing in return -- but there's the chance of a huge reward, not to mention a sense of adventure that's unusual on balance sheets.
Odyssey Turns to Deep Sea Mining
While shipwrecks have made up the bulk of Odyssey's business so far, the company also has a 40 percent stake in Dorado Ocean Resources, a Hong Kong-based company that's part of a new gold rush seeking to mine metals from the ocean floor. With gold hovering at around $1400 per ounce, there's plenty of incentive to search.
"With commodity prices rising, it has excited a lot of investor interest in the fact that we will be able to recover volumes of those commodities from the sea floor, Gordon said.
Deposits of precious metals like gold and silver are found near the intersections of the earth's tectonic plates, particularly in the South Pacific, where the company's fully-equipped, 330-foot exploration vessel, the Dorado Discovery, has been searching since August. Today, Dorado is publicly announcing some of their findings for the first time, which include multiple samples with high grades of gold, silver, zinc and lead.
Dorado is not the first company to explore the ocean floor for precious metal deposits, but its executives say that they've got an edge on the competition thanks to their deep ocean expertise.
Somewhere down the road, Gordon said, "the mining operations could well eclipse the shipwreck operations" in value.
"The tools you need to find mining deposits are the same exact tool kit we've built to find colonial-era shipwrecks or shipwrecks that date to the time of Christ ... just small anomalies on the sea floor," said Gordon.
The company says that concentrations of metals in ore from the ocean floor are many times higher than what you'd find on land, meaning there's plenty of money to be made. Their samples indicate a value of some $500 to $1,200 or more per ton, which Dorado believes they can extract from the ocean for less than $150 per ton.
Unlike a mine on dry land, where a giant infrastructure must be built at each site, Dorado's floating mine will be able to travel from deposit to deposit. While the company has yet to begin production mining, Gordon said it could begin within the next five years.