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World of ocean treasure-hunting on exhibit at Discovery Place


Shipwreck explorers have long been drawn to the North Carolina coast with its sizable collection of wrecks. This weekend a shipwreck exploration company lands in Charlotte to display some of its treasures in a six-month exhibit at Discovery Place. WFAE's Simone Orendain went to the preview opening of "Shipwreck! Pirates and Treasure" and has this report. Shipwrecks are mostly caused by hurricanes and you can feel the full effects of a ship in a hurricane by stepping into a wind tunnel at the exhibit. Exhibit curator Ellen Gerth walks me to the plexi-glass tunnel. "You're going to feel some winds that will get higher and higher until it reaches 79 mph," she explains as the winds kick up inside the air-tight tunnel. 79 mph is the lowest end of a category one hurricane. It's a little hard to get your balance after walking out of that wind tunnel. Gerth explains though, that even the mildest of hurricanes can sink a leaky ship. Over the centuries this has left pieces of history scattered across the ocean floor. Gerth is with Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, which brought the exhibit to Discovery Place. Odyssey specializes in deep sea exploration. The company's centerpiece is a massive underwater robot called Zeus: "This is the manipulator arm, which our project managers and archeologists use to recover artifacts off of a shipwreck," says Odyssey Business Development Director John Longley. He points to a replica of the Zeus arm, which an exhibit visitor manipulates from afar using a joystick and video monitors. "And it's just an extension of this eight ton remote-operated vehicle that we use to send down to the bottom of the ocean," he says. More than 8,000 feet to the bottom, far deeper than what the human body could tolerate. Zeus is designed to dig up some serious booty. Longley says there are more than 300 artifacts on display. "There's a great deal from the SS Republic including bottles, gold and silver coins. There's china and porcelain from the blue china shipwreck we discovered. There's gold bars from the Tortuga shipwreck," Longley says. The SS Republic sunk in 1865, blue china in the 1850s and the Tortuga in 1622. Zeus I and the newer Zeus II have also scoured wreckage of boats through the World War II era. He says, "You know one of our core missions is to share history and our adventures with the public. We want to educate people and entertain people and so this is a great way to do it." The company's other goal is to sell the treasures it finds. Odyssey is a publicly traded company. Last year it had earnings of $4.1 million. In this high risk, high cost world of underwater exploration, millions of dollars are at stake and so are ownership rights. What's not on exhibit is the $500 million worth of silver coins an Odyssey crew discovered about two years ago from a shipwreck in the Gibraltar Straits. This booty is under legal dispute. Spain claims the wreckage is a Spanish warship from 1804, but Odyssey says the wreckage comes from multiple ships. In June, a US magistrate sided with Spain but said the case falls under international jurisdiction. It's the stuff of pirate disputes, which leads to another highlight of this exhibit. What sunken sea treasure exhibit isn't complete without a couple of pirates hanging around? "I'm a touch uncomfortable on land," says 18th century Caribbean pirate Jack Rackham- or an actor playing him. Rackham was known for being more interested in fancy clothes and booze than being a competent pirate. "I don't mind it because at sea you know I don't dress like this it's much more simple. Here I get to show you what finery I can pull off," he says. Discovery Place President John Mackay admits pirates are always a good draw for the kids. But he says the exhibit doesn't glorify them. Mackay says, "We don't play it up as a romantic, fun thing to be because after all this was a brutal kind of life. These were not necessarily very nice people. The work that they did, of course, was outside the law." The Charlotte visit is the fifth stop for the Shipwreck exhibit, which originated in New Orleans. It opened four years ago, ironically, on the day Hurricane Katrina hit.