‘Billion dollar’ treasure exploration heating up

• Group says it found 13 wrecks in Bahamas waters

• Gov’t confirms licence for Walker’s Cay owner

• Allen Exploration setting up GB museum for finds

By NEIL HARTNELL

Tribune Business Editor

nhartnell@tribunemedia.net

AN UNDERWATER exploration group says it has detected 13 shipwrecks - one a billion-dollar find - in Bahamian waters with the Government having quietly given a salvage licence to another operator.

BSD Global Exploration, whose principals include former US ambassador to The Bahamas, Ned Siegel, says satellite technology able to locate minerals and precious metals some 26,000 feet below ground or the ocean surface has identified multiple sites of potential economic and historical significance to The Bahamas.

A presentation by the group, which has been seen by Tribune Business, asserts that just one shipwreck alone could have five tons of gold - worth an estimated $1bn - sitting on The Bahamas’ ocean floor.

“BSD Global Exploration scans cost between $1m and $1.5m per each search per metal or substance,” the presentation said. “We have done a search of your waters and found the following results.

“Thirteen shipwrecks including one shipwreck from the 1715 fleet with about five tons of gold on the ocean floor. Estimated total is $1bn.”

However, BSD Global is far from alone in seeking potential riches on the Bahamian seabed. For Joshua Sears, the Prime Minister’s senior policy adviser, has confirmed to Tribune Business that an underwater exploration/salvage licence has already been issued to Carl Allen, the multi-millionaire Walker’s Cay owner, and his company.

“To the best of my knowledge, a licence was issued to them,” Mr Sears replied, when this newspaper questioned if such an approval had been granted to Allen Exploration. “It would be at least maybe two years ago, 15-20 months ago.”

Several sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, yesterday queried whether there was sufficient transparency surrounding the Allen Exploration licence award by the Minnis administration given that this had never previously been disclosed to the Bahamian people.

“That’s crazy. There’s no news to the public,” one blasted. Another, who said he knew of seven to nine different groups who had been unsuccessful in their applications for an underwater exploration/salvage licence, added: “It’s interesting that no Bahamian has received any licence, and there have been eight to nine applications. I was involved with five of them.

“They have not got a word from the Government on any of those, which I think is unfair. I thought this was one of those areas reserved for Bahamians only. It was one those economic areas rightfully designed for Bahamians, whether under their own auspices or they took in a foreigner as a joint venture partner. In this way, there is no direct benefit for Bahamians.”

However, Allen Exploration’s Facebook page makes no secret of its owner’s treasure hunting/wreck salvaging ambitions in The Bahamas. It confirms that it was created specifically to explore Bahamian waters with a focus on finding the Nuestra Senora de la Maravillas, the sunken Spanish treasure galleon that some have described as “the most valuable shipwreck in the Western Hemisphere”.

And a March 8, 2021, video clip records Mr Allen saying his company is already recovering “gems” and “pendants” from the ocean floor, although he does not give the precise location.

The interviewer, in the introduction, says: “Learning the plans that Carl Allen has for Walker’s Cay, it’s clear he has a passion for hospitality, but to be honest with you he has another passion that is much deeper.”

The video then cuts to Mr Allen saying: “I have been looking most of my life for a ship called Nuestra Senora de la Maravillas, otherwise known as Our Lady of Wonder, and I do believe we’re on the debris field floor that’s the stern castle because of these gems that we’re finding and these pendants that we’re finding.”

Tribune Business contacts confirmed that Mr Allen, as stipulated by his agreement with the Bahamian government, is in the process of setting up a Grand Bahama-based museum where the artifacts recovered from his underwater exploration will eventually be put on public display.

It is understood that the treasure hunting proceeds will be split 75/25 in favour of Mr Allen, as stipulated by the Antiquities, Monuments and Museums (AMMC) Act 2011, and the accompanying regulations. AMMC is thought to be working with Allen Exploration to document, assess and value what has been recovered from the latter’s exploration efforts.

rmer AMMC archeologist, is the curator for the planned museum. A previous press release, issued in late December 2020, described him as the curator for AEX Bahamas Maritime Museum. AEX stands for “Allen Exploration”.

Contacted yesterday by Tribune Business, Dr Pateman replied: “We’re working on it” when asked how far the museum’s creation had progressed. When this newspaper raised the issue of valuing the artifacts recovered by Allen Exploration, he replied: “I can’t give any comments just yet. You’d have to speak to Mr Allen on that.”

Dr Pateman took this newspaper’s contact details and promised to pass them on to Mr Allen. Tribune Business also tried to contact the Walker’s Cay owner via social media and other communications, but no response was received before press time.

The Nuestra Senora de la Maravillas was transporting gold, silver and other riches plundered from Spain’s Latin American colonies back to the homeland when it sank on January 4, 1656, near Little Bahama Bank off Grand Bahama after being rammed by one of the other vessels in its nine-strong fleet as they sought to avoid shallow water.

The site, said to have been lying under 30 to 50 feet of shifting sand, was eventually located in 1972 by treasure hunter Richard Marx but his exploration efforts were cut short following a falling-out with the then-Bahamian government.

Subsequently, the Washington Post reported in 1986 that a Memphis businessman with an interest in wreck salvaging, Herbert Humphreys, had located the wreck and begun to recover artifacts. The value of its cargo was pegged at $1.6bn by the article, which said several million dollars’ worth of gems - including a 49.5 carat emerald worth $1m - had already been recovered.

Humphreys’ work was said to have had the blessing of the then-Bahamian government, which received 25 percent of the value of whatever was recovered - a sum consistent with current law. It is unclear when his salvaging stopped, and how much may be left for Allen Exploration to uncover, but the latter’s principal appears confident he is exploring in the right location based on his Facebook The last Ingraham administration is understood to have placed a moratorium on underwater exploration licences, while the Christie administration is also thought to have issued no new licences during its 2012-2017 tenure. That now appears to have changed - at least partially - under the Minnis administration.

However, BSD Global Exploration has thus far been unsuccessful in its efforts to follow in Allen Exploration’s footsteps. A February 24, 2021, letter sent to the group by Kim Outten Stubbs, the AMMC’s director, said its application for an underwater exploration licence had been declined because the area it was interested already “overlaps with an active licence area”.

Thus confirming that another licence had already been issued, although not identifying the party involved, Ms Outten Stubbs said the regulations accompanying the 2011 Act prevent the Government from issuing “multiple licences” for the same area.

“I am directed to advise that the request by BSD Global Exploration for consideration of a licence to perform underwater exploration and recovery operations within the four listed corner co-ordinates has been examined and are found to overlap with an active licence area,” she wrote. “Consequently, your request cannot be considered at this time.”

Tribune Business understands that BSD Global Exploration is now awaiting the outcome of Thursday’s general election before plotting its next move, having applied for just one of the 13 shipwreck locations it had identified.

It is thought to have decided not to disclose the other 12 locations yet for fear that this would endanger its intellectual property, and that the co-ordinates could either leak out or be passed to rivals.

The Bahamas, and successive administrations, have long struggled to get to grips with underwater exploration and treasure salvaging within this nation’s territorial waters - hence the long-standing moratoriums on new licences.

Lacking the necessary expertise and resources to conduct proper oversight, together with the required regulatory regime, The Bahamas has allowed many of these sites to be pillaged and ransacked by unauthorized foreign salvors. This has resulted in many Bahamian artifacts appearing at overseas auctions and sales without this nation receiving a cent in benefits for them.

But, while underwater exploration did not merit much mention in the two major political parties’ election manifestos, the sector holds much-needed economic and fiscal potential for The Bahamas should it get it right at a time when the country needs every cent it can get post-COVID-19.

One industry source, asked about the industry’s potential value to The Bahamas, simply responded: “Billions”. They added: “The second and third most valuable wrecks in the entire western hemisphere are located off Grand Bahama.

“It would be an entire industry. It has the ability to effectively put Freeport back on the map. You’re talking about billions in artifiacts, and I mean billions. You’ve got from conservation of artifacts to research to study to inventory. The question is where is the transparency and the accountability.”

Another added: “People have been coming into our waters for decades and pilfering this. They’re coming in, taking it and putting it on the US market. Bahamian officials have shared how things are being sold in the US that are found in Bahamian waters. The last administration put a moratorium on this to try and fix it.”