Monday, March 27, 2006


Exploration of sunken shipwrecks on hold

By Brendan Kirby
March 25, 2006

Government officials and a company that wants to salvage four shipwreck sites it discovered two years ago have told a federal judge in Mobile that they will not try to identify the vessels until diving conditions improve.

Fathom Exploration, based in Gulf Shores, found four shipwreck sites near the mouth of Mobile Bay in 2004. Company officials have said they want to salvage the sites and claim any valuable artifacts that may exist.

But those efforts have been tied up in federal court, where the state and federal governments have laid claims to the sites. A private citizen also has challenged Fathom on grounds that the shipwreck might be a vessel owned by his relatives.

All parties agreed in December to put the case on hold for a year, while they came to a consensus on how to proceed with the identification of the ship or ships. Although Fathom Exploration officials found four locations, they have said they believe all of the sites might have come from a single sunken vessel that has broken into pieces over the years.

The parties have agreed to keep U.S. Magistrate Judge Bert Milling Jr. informed about their negotiations with written reports every three months. The first of those so-called status reports, filed this month, stated that they are close to working out the details of a procedure to identify the sites.

"As a practical matter, nobody's going to find anything without somebody making a stab at finding out, with some degree of certainty, what's down there," said David Bagwell, a Fairhope lawyer who represents a man who believes at least one of the vessels may be the clipper ship Robert H. Dixey.

Bagwell said he hopes to work out an agreement before the end of June.

"Let the winds of spring die down and get it before hurricane season kicks in. It's a fairly narrow window," he said.

Headed by Gulf Shores resident David Anderson, Fathom Exploration filed a claim in October 2004 seeking control over the wreck sites, which it said lie in an area extending 2 nautical miles from a spot southwest of the Fort Morgan peninsula. The company has refused to give the public more specific coordinates for fear that looters will destroy the sites.

The federal government maintains that the ships are U.S. property if the vessels belonged to the United States or a foreign country. State authorities contend the vessels belong to Alabama if they lie sunken in state waters and that Fathom Exploration would have to get a permit and negotiate an arrangement to split any proceeds it reaps.

At one point, the Alabama Historical Commission was negotiating with the company for such a permit but the status of those talks was unclear on Friday. Michael Mark, an attorney for the Fathom Exploration, was out of town. Assistant Attorney General William Little also could not be reached for comment.

Any agreement allowing the Fathom Exploration to try to identify the site will include provisions governing the hiring of experts and safeguards to ensure that the work is done in an archeologically sound way, Bagwell said.

"We all know that it may be very difficult time identifying what it is," he said. "Whatever it is, it's been there at least 100 years and maybe 300 years.


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