Thursday, August 04, 2005


Explorers agree to divulge locations

By Brendan Kirby
August 02, 2005

Partnership wants to excavate vessels for possible treasures
Explorers seeking permission to investigate four shipwreck sites they claim to have discovered near Mobile Bay have agreed to reveal the precise location of the vessels to the state and federal governments.

A proposed order all three parties have submitted to a federal judge would prohibit any of the participants from releasing that information to anyone else, a measure the explorers hope will protect the locations from looters.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Kristi DuBose still must sign off on the order, but since she originally ordered the parties to submit the proposal, that is considered a formality.

A group led by Gulf Shores resident David Anderson formed a limited liability partnership called Fathom Exploration in October, days before filing a federal lawsuit to stake its claim on four spots southwest of the Fort Morgan peninsula. The partnership has stated in court papers that the sites are in Alabama territorial waters in the Gulf of Mexico, with debris trails extending toward federal waters.

Michael Mark, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said Monday that his client will attempt to negotiate a permit with the Alabama Historical Commission. The group hopes to salvage the sites and split the artifacts with the state -- a process he said would take months or years.

"The case continues," he said. "There's really not a lot to do until we get to the excavation point."
Assistant Attorney General Bill Little, who represents the state, agreed. "I hope they come back and work more closely with us," he said.

State Archaeologist Thomas Maher said the partnership has contacted him but has not submitted a formal application. He said his background is in terrestrial archaeology and that he is unfamiliar with the underwater salvage operations, and he plans to consult with col leagues in Florida and other states to seek advice on a fair division.

Maher said the state government does not have the funds to launch an exploration of the site and suggested that Fathom Exploration deserves compensation for its efforts. At the same time, he said, his main interest is in preserving the history.

"We would want a report on the excavation, hopefully producing knowledge as well as artifacts," he said.

Both the state and federal governments challenged Fathom Exploration's claim, stating they might have rightful ownership in the vessels, and demanded to know the precise spots of the sunken ships; the partnership previously had described the locations only within a radius of 2 nautical miles.

Glenn Forest, a nautical archeologist who has followed the case closely, has said it is unlikely the vessels contain much treasure. He speculated that the divers want to sell the rights to books, movies and television programs. Based on their description of the items they have found, he said, the ships likely are quite old.

"These wrecks are archeologically significant. And they know that," he said.

Fearing looters, Fathom Exploration had resisted giving a full description of the ships' locations. But U.S. District Judge William Steele on July 22 upheld DuBose's order to negotiate an agreement under which the information would be provided to the state and federal governments.

The proposed court order requires seven days' notice if any of the parties wish to provide the information to anyone else and assurances that a judge would have to approve it. The state and federal governments also would be required to keep records of each person who receives the location, including address and phone numbers.

"I'm satisfied we have done everything we can do given the judge's orders. But as you well now, any secret known by more than one person is not a secret," Mark said.


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