Odyssey Marine Explorations

Shipwreck ! at the Maryland Science Center

By Chris Kaltenbach - Baltimore Sun

Pirates and their plunder, as well as some treasures recovered from the ocean depths, go on display.

It doesn't look much like coins, this misshapen hunk of stone-encrusted metal. But peer closer, and the coral-like formation turns out to be several dozen 19th-century half-dollars, clinging together like barnacles on a rock.

Sure, it's ugly. That's what spending more than a century at the bottom of the ocean can do to a coin.

This numismatic mutation is but one of the many wonders on display as part of "Shipwreck ! Pirates & Treasure," a traveling exhibition opening Friday at the Maryland Science Center.

Part pirate fantasy, part high-tech odyssey, the exhibit is devoted to treasure, highlighting both the scurvy scalawags who plundered it and the modern adventurers who spend years scouring the ocean floor trying to recover it.

The result is a happily schizophrenic exhibit that starts off talking about pirates, Jolly Rogers and unfortunate people walking the plank. The exhibit then gives way to a display of high-tech gadgetry used to find and recover the booty from shipwrecks that, for decades or even centuries, have rested quietly on the ocean floor.

At the center of "Shipwreck!" is a treasure-trove of artifacts salvaged from the wreck of the Republic, a ship that sank about 100 miles off the Georgia coast in 1865 as it was trying to deliver commercial goods to a New Orleans still reeling from the ravages of the Civil War.

"We really want to show the excitement, the thrill of deep-water- ocean shipwreck exploration," said Ellen Gerth, collections curator for Tampa, Fla.-based Odyssey Marine Explorations, the company that found the wreck of the Republic some 1,700 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean. "So few people realize that the ocean is truly this vast, unexplored frontier."

"Shipwreck!" occupies about 8,000 square feet on the center's second floor, and it starts off with a pirate display clearly designed with kids and the "Pirates of the Caribbean"-obsessed in mind.

Visitors can fashion their own pirate on a computer screen (eye patch optional), practice tying nautical knots and shake boxes of mysterious booty (which could hold coffee beans, lead shot or gold coins).

Pirate flags are unfurled, including Calico Jack's famous Jolly Roger and Blackbeard's dancing skeleton. In a touch straight out of an amusement park house of horrors, the (fake) skeletal remains of one unfortunate pirate, his red cap still in place, hang from a ship's bow.

Displays showcase pirate artifacts, such as lead shot and clay pipes, and explain the differences between pirates, privateers (essentially pirates licensed by the government), buccaneers (originally restricted to the Caribbean, although now used to refer to any pirate) and Barbary corsairs (who operated out of North Africa).

"For whatever reason, people seem to gravitate to pirate legend and pirate lore," said Chris Cropper, the center's senior director of marketing. "There's just something fascinating about it."

The second half of "Shipwreck!" details the work of Odyssey, focusing primarily on the Republic, which was built in Baltimore in 1853. Launched as the Tennessee, it was used for commercial purposes and as a warship by both the Union and Confederate navies.

While on its way to New Orleans after the war, loaded with goods and some $400,000 in coins, it sank in a squall.