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Finders of the Caribbean

Ever wondered what it would be like living on a ship for days on end, finding and poring over some of the most famous shipwrecks of the world? 

Starting today, Discovery Science is broadcasting a number of shows on how the controversial NASDAQ-registered deep-sea excavation company -- Odyssey Marine Exploration works. This company, which brings together scientists and archaeologists and uses state-of-the-art equipment, including remote-operated vehicles that can lift the heaviest to the most delicate of objects, has been behind some of the biggest finds in the deep seas in recent history.


A technician aboard the Odyssey during an expedition. Behind him, the
remote-operated Zeus (in yellow) which is sent to explore sites


From Civil War ships (SS Republic from which they recovered over 5,00,000 silver and gold coins) to famous ones (HMS Victory, the largest, most sophisticated warship in 1744 when it sunk), the company has discovered about 300 shipwrecks. However, it has also come in for major criticism. For instance, they reached an agreement with the British government to recover the HMS Sussex, which in 1694, was reportedly carrying 10 tons of gold coins to buy a duke's favour against France.

According to the agreement, the company would get to share potential spoils with the government, leading some to call the company a modern-day pirate and setting a dangerous precedent of "ransacking" shipwrecks under the aegis of archaeological research. Gregory Stemm, the Co-Founder of Odyssey Marine Exploration, talks about excavating shipwrecks and living aboard a ship for 45 days at a stretch.

Naysayers say you ransack ships under the pretext of archaeological research.
No one can question the kind of excavation work we do. We have been behind some of the biggest deep-sea finds in recent history, which would probably have been lost to us forever. However, what people have a problem with is the fact that we make money doing this work. But we are a private company and if one looks around, in all other fields also companies look to make a profit.
 
Why did you form the company?
I was already in the field of deep-sea excavation. At that time (1987), we realised that there was potential in th field but no one was seriously exploring it. All this equipment that we now use was already being used in oil and gas mining, and the military. We just brought them to find shipwrecks.

How do you'll work?
In all, we have about 150 people working in the company. But on projects, we have about 40 to 45 people on board the ship. They consist of archaeologists, scientists and technicians who live on the ship for a stretch of 45 days maximum. During that period, they work full time - 24/7, for seven days a week. Our vessel, the Odyssey Explorer is a 251-foot ship. It is the company's primary archaeological platform. Then we have Zeus, our remote-operated vehicle, which serves as the archaeologist's eyes and hands in the deep ocean. Its arms can lift hundreds of pounds, or the most delicate of artefacts, and its cameras, lights, and sensors can handle the darkest underwater environment. 
 
What are the biggest challenges you face while working?
Well, we have faced plenty of storms and gales. It can get really tough when working in those conditions, as you will see in the TV show. Also the technology we are using at such great depths can get difficult, but over the years, we have become very adept at it. What we can do with the robot far surpasses what a regular diver can. However, the toughest part is the work onshore, all the bureaucracy and red-tapism. I wish I wasn't flying across the world getting paperwork correct. I'd rather be onboard facing a storm. (Stemm spends much lesser time on board the ship, than he used to.)
 
What is your most memorable moment on board the Odyssey?
Well its been so many years since we started work, but still nothing beats that feeling of seeing a shipwreck for the first time. You will be able to see that on the show -- how at first an anomaly at the bottom of the ocean beeps in our scan sonar. Then we send a robot to look at it, and as we get closer, we have an acoustic signal that gives us an idea of a shipwreck. And then as we get closer, we see it -- the first little bits of a shipwreck.
 
Watch: 8.30 pm, Discovery Science

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