GIBRALTAR (Reuters) - Spanish police boarded an American treasure-hunting ship on Thursday that Madrid believes may have taken gold and silver worth millions from a sunken Spanish galleon.
A Spanish Civil Guard patrol boat challenged the Ocean Alert after it left the British colony of Gibraltar, on Spain’s southern tip, and confronted the captain with a court order to search his vessel, the Civil Guard said in a statement.
The boat then docked at the Spanish port of Algeciras.
Spain says the U.S. company Odyssey Marine Exploration has treasure Madrid believes could have been retrieved from Spanish waters or from a Spanish galleon which sank in the Atlantic during the colonial period.
Odyssey Marine Exploration, a Florida-based treasure hunting company, has said it legally recovered gold and silver coins worth an estimated $500 million from a colonial-era wreck code-named Black Swan at a location in the Atlantic Ocean which it refuses to disclose.
Odyssey said it had arranged with the Civil Guard for an on-ship inspection of Ocean Alert in international waters.
“To Odyssey’s surprise, when the Guardia Civil did stop the vessel on Thursday, they informed the Captain that the ship would instead have to travel to a Spanish port for inspection,” Odyssey said in an e-mail to Reuters.
This was “in direct contravention of the arrangement which had been agreed to the previous day and contradicted the representations of the Spanish Judge,” it said.
“As a result, the Captain refused to be boarded ... and the Guardia Civil boarded the ship under threat of force, which is illegal in international waters under these circumstances,” it said.
Spain suspects the company of illegally flying treasure to the United States.
The Ocean Alert, which had a Spanish lawyer on board, is one of three vessels belonging to Odyssey which are subject to a search warrant issued by a Spanish court last month.
It had been effectively stuck in Gibraltar since then. It was not clear what its destination was on Thursday.
Once in the port of Algeciras, crew had their possessions removed and searched. No one was immediately arrested or charged. It was not clear whether arrests would follow or if the boat would be confiscated.
British government sources said London would raise the case with the Spanish Foreign Ministry since the boat should not have been detained in international waters without permission from Panama, where the boat is registered.
Allen von Spiegelfeld, a Florida-based attorney representing Odyssey Marine, said Spain had made no effort to clear the seizure of the boat with authorities in Panama.
“The owners of the vessel have contacted the Panamanian maritime authorities protesting the seizure on international waters,” von Spiegelfeld told Reuters.
Gibraltar’s government issued a statement saying it was “concerned that international shipping using Gibraltar port should be interfered with in this way in international waters.”
No one at the Spanish Foreign Ministry was available for comment.
Spain ceded control of Gibraltar to Britain in 1713 but has since been seeking to regain the strategic territory, which sits at the entrance to the Mediterranean.
Additional reporting by Tom Brown in Miami and Matthew Bigg in Atlanta