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Discovery Channel – Treasure Quest

A search for sunken treasure on the ocean floor plays out like a cold case mystery on “Treasure Quest,” a new Discovery Channel series that follows the undersea salvage work of Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration.

The 11-part series, debuting at 10 p.m. Thursday, takes viewers along on the hunt for the Merchant Royal, a trading ship loaded with gold, silver and jewels that went down in the English Channel in 1641.

A mix of adventure, science and history, “Treasure Quest” details the work of the world’s only publicly traded company dedicated to deep-ocean shipwreck exploration.

“It’s a chance to show people what we do and what’s involved in locating, identifying and then recovering artifacts,” says Odyssey co-founder and CEO Greg Stemm.

“We’re doing more than just recovering lost treasure,” he adds. “Our goal is to map the entire ocean bottom.”

Odyssey made headlines in recent years with two major discoveries: the SS Republic, a steamship that sank 100 miles off the coast of Georgia in 1865 while carrying a fortune in gold coins, and a Colonial era shipwreck near Portugal that yielded $500 million in silver and gold coins.

The company is selling the Republic coins and has a traveling museum exhibit based on the find. But the 17-ton treasure from the Colonial ship, dubbed The Black Swan, is in limbo while a U.S. federal court considers Spain’s claim to it. A ruling is expected early this year, Stemm says.

Meanwhile, with more than 3 million shipwrecks at the bottom of the seas, Odyssey presses on with new projects, such as the search for the Merchant Royal.

Stemm, who has been in the ocean salvage business since the 1980s, is featured prominently in the series.

Viewers are also introduced to some of the 42 crew members of the Odyssey Explorer, a 251-foot vessel equipped with an archeology lab. Chief among the crew are project manager Tom Dettweiler, who led the team that discovered the Titanic, and field archeologist Neil Cunningham Dobson.

Vital to their undersea exploration is ZEUS, a 10-foot-high, 8-ton custom minisub.

Stemm says Odyssey has state-of-the-art equipment that is light years ahead of other salvage operations.

“If you were to compare it to racing, it’s like we are Formula One and they are on lawnmowers,” he says.

“Treasure Quest” taped the crew as they worked in the English Channel from March to November 2008.

In addition to coping with rough seas and murky waters, they found the Channel littered with hundreds of wrecks. “It’s not a pristine place like a rain forest, it’s more like an industrial waste site,” Stemm says. “Wood deteriorates, things become corroded, and the heavy metal chains of fishing trawlers cause a lot of damage.”

This kind of salvage work is costly. Stemm says it would take about $10 million to match Odyssey’s recovery equipment, and operating costs run about $35,000 a day.

“You won’t get rich doing this,” he adds. “You have to have a love for the sea and the curiosity about what lies beneath. The history is just as fascinating to me as the treasure.”

Over the course of 11 episodes, the Odyssey crew makes some interesting finds, including an elephant tusk that had been on the ocean floor for centuries, ancient ships’ cannons, valuable slave trade bracelets, and lead ingots valuable today because the lead is used in the electronics industry.

They also visit the sunken Lusitania, the British luxury liner torpedoed by a German sub in 1915. The current owner contracted Odyssey to do an archeological survey of the site.

For Stemm, it was a thrill to share his work on camera.

“I grew up watching Jacques Cousteau’s TV specials. He was the first to pull back the curtain and show us what’s in the ocean. I like to think that we are pulling it back farther to show more. Shipwrecks tell wonderful stories of the past and we are passionate about sharing those stories and the treasures recovered.”

For information on Odyssey Marine and “Treasure Quest,” visit www.shipwreck.net.

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