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Discovery's 'Silver Rush' shows Odyssey's recovery effort

When crews from Odyssey Marine Exploration succeeded in hauling up 48 tons of silver bullion from a 71-year-old shipwreck last year, the scrappy Tampa-based company made headlines worldwide.

So, as Discovery channel prepares to air a new series Sunday showing just how Odyssey made it all happen — delivered in a three-hour marathon for nautical nuts who find the Academy Awards less than compelling — a question arises:

Is there anything left to see?

"What the team pulled off that's documented in these shows is really amazing," enthused Mark Gordon, chief operating officer for Odyssey Marine, speaking by phone from the company's Tampa headquarters.

"We were working in 15,000 feet of water, deeper than the Titanic," he added. "I think it's actually going to be in the Guinness Book of World Records as the deepest recovery of valuable cargo in history."

Sunday's Silver Rush, narrated by onetime Dirty Jobs star Mike Rowe, documents the company's effort to tackle salvage from three different shipwrecks totalling $1 billion in recovered material.

It's the product of a mutually beneficial relationship reaching back to the 2009 series Treasure Quest. Discovery gets an in-depth look at an historic salvage operation that fits the "macho guys in dangerous jobs" vibe of Deadliest Catch; Odyssey gets alignment with a well-known TV brand to help in negotiating with governments around the world.

Those negotiations are more necessary than ever, thanks to a 2009 court decision that forced Odyssey Marine to give up $500 million in silver bullion it had recovered two years earlier from a sunken ship (a process immortalized in Treasure Quest).

Silver Rush begins with that setback, as the company last year handed over 17 tons of silver and gold to the Spanish government at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.

The ruling forced Odyssey to change tactics, cutting deals with rights holders in advance. So they struck an agreement with the British government for the SS Gairsoppa, sunk by a torpedo from a German U-Boat in 1941 while laden with 240 tons of silver.

On Sunday, viewers see how the project started: spending three weeks locating a possible wreck site with sonar, then investigating more closely with a crew costing $30,000 a day.

Eventually, Odyssey hired a ship with the kind of heavy duty equipment needed to peel back the inch-thick skin of the 42-foot steamship at 3 miles deep. The price tag for 90 days: $10 million.

"We were right on the ragged edge of whether we could pull this off," Gordon said. "I think more of the drama was centered on whether, you know, what would happen with the business if it didn't succeed."

The terms of their agreement bring Odyssey an 80 percent share of any find. According to the New York Times, the total value of last year's haul reaches about $38 million, and they've only retrieved 20 percent of the total cargo.

But Odyssey started the new year with a new controversy, as some in Britain protested another deal to salvage the HMS Victory, a warship sunk in 1744.

A story in London's Daily Telegraph called the Odyssey's crews "bounty hunters," quoting a former archeology professor at Cambridge who decried selling treasures excavated from a Royal Navy ship as "tawdry."

"It's a small number of protesters," said Gordon, who acknowledged shows such as Silver Rush go a long way toward easing fears among government officials.

"They're really impressed with getting to see our teams, tools and technology at work," he added. "If we didn't have Discovery cameras rolling, it's a glimpse that people outside our world would never get."

.at a glance

Silver Rush debuts at 8 p.m. Sunday on Discovery.

Discovery's 'Silver Rush' shows Odyssey's recovery effort 02/21/13 [Last modified: Friday, February 22, 2013 11:42am]
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