By Robert Trigaux - TBO
For more than two decades, Tampa’s Odyssey Marine Exploration has reveled with a reputation as a swashbuckling, deep-ocean treasure hunting enterprise.
Odyssey has hauled tons of gold and silver from centuries-old U.S., Spanish and British ships sunk far beneath the Atlantic Ocean and adjacent waters. The company has enjoyed the limelight of more front page stories over the years in the New York Times than most major U.S. corporations and far more than any other business in the Tampa Bay area.
It has been the focus of long sagas in magazines like The New Yorker and was profiled by a National Geographic staffer in the 2005 book Lost Gold of the Republic about what was then the richest monetary and archaeological marine salvage in American history.
In 2009 the Discovery Channel launched a reality called Treasure Quest with 12 episodes devoted to Odyssey Marine’s shipwreck adventures. “Shipwreck stuff was cool,” Odyssey Marine CEO Mark Gordon said in a sit-down interview this summer.
“The acid test is when your teenage daughter asks you to come to school day and tell them what you do.” Lately, the coolest Dad around now looks more like the Maytag repairman sitting by a phone that does not ring. Odyssey Marine’s forlorn Tampa headquarters sits back in a too-quiet office building on West Laurel Street, its second floor space eerily lean on employees.
Tight times in the past year forced cuts in office staff to 22 from more than 40. Nine years ago, when the company was in the thick of high-profile underseas treasure finds, Nasdaq-traded Odyssey basked in a stock price topping $80.
This year, its sub-$4 shares briefly spiked at $9 in April after Odyssey took a draconian move of converting every 12 shares to one in order to raise its stock value. But shares have since sunk again, now trading between $2 and $4. Nasdaq has warned Odyssey its market value (shares times its stock price) is still below the $35 million minimum value required to remain as a viable Nasdaq-traded company.
One of Odyssey’s last shipwreck finds in 2007, code named Black Swan, promised up to 500,000 gold and silver coins, a possible underwater mother lode. Except for one thing: Spain.
The country, claiming rights to the ship and its Spanish wealth, took legal action against Odyssey, eventually landing two C-130 airplanes at Tampa’s MacDill Air Force to load nearly 17 tons of salvaged coins and return the enormous bounty to Spain. That long legal fight diminished Odyssey’s stock price and resources, forcing company leaders to concede its days of treasure hunting as an independent company were at an end.
It all sounds bleak. And it is. Odyssey is at a crossroads. Will it slowly wither as a faded treasure hunting business, or reinvent itself as a business that can find even greater sources of wealth than shipwrecks on the ocean floor ?
Since its start, Odyssey’s future was built on its specialized skills as a deep ocean shipwreck finder. Few treasure hunters can pursue shipwrecks deeper than 1,000 feet and Odyssey used its ROV or “remotely operated vehicle” known as “Zeus” on wrecks as deep as 15,000 feet — nearly 3 miles underwater.
That’s what set it apart from so many shallow water treasure hunters. Gordon still ponders Odyssey’s choices.