Odyssey Explorer operating on the wreck site of HMS Victory 1744 in 2012
[Courtesy of Astrid Harrison]
Mystery surrounded the recent move of the Odyssey Marine Exploration’s flagship research vessel Odyssey Explorer to the little known port of Mersrags in the Gulf of Latvia. The mystery was compounded over the weekend of 4/5 June  when it was noticed that the vessel’s name had been changed to “Empire Persia” on the international Automatic Identification System [AIS]. A navigation and safety system where by all vessels over 500 tons are required to transmit their GPS coordinates in real time. However, after contacting sources in the maritime industry, thePipeLine can reveal that the reason for the move is that the 1600 ton, Bahamas flagged vessel has been sold to what is understood to be a group of Latvian businessmen for an undisclosed sum. thePipeLine also understands that technical equipment, almost certainly including the famously anthropomorphised Remotely Operated Vehicle [ROV] “Zeus”, was offloaded in the UK port of Portland, Dorset, prior to the move to Latvia. If confirmed, the sale of the company’s last remaining research vessel, coupled with the earlier sale and lease back of its Tampa Headquarters and the disposal of its shipwreck database and conservation and storage facility, will strengthen the impression that a cash strapped Odyssey is being forced to liquidate even its most important, and in the case of Odyssey Explorer publicly recognisable, assets in an attempt to keep the company alive.
The last in a line of trawlers which went to war as naval auxiliaries dating back to World War One, the Falklands War veteran, was launched in 1972 and operated as the Farnella and Northern Prince before taking on her third, and most well known, incarnation as Odyssey Marine Exploration’s flagship. However, as Odyssey Chief Executive Officer Mark Gordon admitted in a May 2015 conference call with shareholders, the forty three year old Odyssey Explorer was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. The company’s perilous financial state has also required it to trim costs savagely and, with the vessel costing in the region of $35k per day to keep at sea, she spent much of 2015 tied up in port. It now seems likely that Odyssey’s management has come to the conclusion that owning its own search and light salvage platform has become a luxury the company can no longer afford and future operations, if any, will be conducted from chartered vessels.
Marine analysts also suggest that the disposal of Odyssey Explorer is a sign that, even if it manages to survive as a going concern, Odyssey is no longer going to undertake the extensive and time consuming surveys, “mowing the lawn” with sonar, apparently in search of wreck targets. A technique which became the company signature when it moved its main focus of operations to the Western English Channel in 2007-2008. Instead, it is thought likely that the company will overtly adopt the proven business model of the rest of the commercial salvage industry and will either buy wreck positions from researchers, or other salvage companies; or it will target specific vessels with known cargoes, the coordinates of which are already reasonably well known. Both are practices Odyssey indulged in during its heyday making the “Treasure Quest” television series for the Discovery Channel, while for the most part maintaining the fiction that the wreck positions the company identified were developed form its own proprietary database and, in the case of wrecks in the English channel, from the so called “Atlas Survey”.
Once the star of “Treasure Quest”, like the aging Norma Desmond in the classic film noir “Sunset Boulevard”, it seems that Odyssey Explorer has become a casualty of changing times and reduced ambitions, and like the fictional film star, Odyssey co-founder, chief publicist and now arms length “consultant” Greg Stemm could say;
“There once was a time in this business when I had the eyes of the whole world!”
Or at least had the eyes of viewers of the Discovery Channel; but not any more.
Of course, the Hollywood world of Norma Desmond was one of conspicuous consumption, and deliberately crafted illusion. Many critics of Odyssey Marine Exploration would say that it is precisely the same conspicuous consumption of resources in promoting the illusory prospect of a block buster of a “Black Swan” treasure cargo which would justify the entire business model, which has brought the company to its current state. That and an expensive, and reputationally destructive, blind spot when it comes to the obeying the spirit and letter of international maritime law and local marine licencing regulations.
Odyssey Marine Exploration were contacted by thePipeLine and asked to comment on the reported sale of Odyssey Explorer, but have so far failed to reply.