Treasure ship leaves Spanish waters

TAMPA, Fla. &

A ship belonging to Florida deep-sea explorers has left Spanish waters, ending the latest round in an increasingly nasty dispute with that nation's government over the rights to a vast sunken treasure.

Odyssey Marine Exploration's ship chugged out of Spanish waters Thursday, a day after Spanish authorities released the vessel. They seized the ship July 12 after it left British-controlled Gibraltar to search the vessel for clues as to the origins of an estimated $500 million in silver coins and other artifacts salvaged from a still undisclosed shipwreck.

The seizure of the 240-foot Ocean Alert culminated months of tense talks between Odyssey officials and the Spanish government, detailed in a 109-page affidavit the company prepared for Spain's Culture Ministry. Odyssey provided a copy of the document to The Associated Press.

"It's been very frustrating for everyone," said Aladar Nesser, Odyssey's director of international relations, who is trying to determine if the company's other ship, Odyssey Explorer, will be allowed to leave British-controlled Gibraltar without interference from Spain.

At the heart of the dispute is Spain's claim that it has a right to share in the treasure if it was recovered in territorial waters or is connected to the nation's heritage in any way.

Citing security and other concerns, Odyssey will not disclose the location of the shipwreck, code-named "Black Swan." The company says it's not yet sure of the identity of the sunken ship, which yielded 17 tons of coins that were flown to the U.S. in May.

The secrecy has contributed to a growing mistrust of the Tampa-based company among some in the Spanish government, a sentiment that has been fanned by the country's media.

"Spain has reason to believe Odyssey has recovered Spanish property without authorization," said James A. Goold, an attorney who filed a claim in U.S. federal court on behalf of Spain.

Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm said he resents the company's growing reputation as modern-day pirates.

The company, he said, has "bent over backward" to communicate with the Spanish and other governments about its movements and treasure searches. And Odyssey has gone to U.S. federal court to seek exclusive rights to suspected wreck sites so anyone in the world with a potential claim would have a proper venue.

"That's the great irony," Stemm said. "How much more straightforward can you be than turning over the site to the U.S. federal court and following U.S. federal court orders? Does that really sound like piracy to you?"

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