As you may have heard, technology is changing everything. Including, according to this New York Times story, treasure hunting! Actually, technology isn’t “changing” treasure hunting: it’s making it easier, which is catalyzing the dispute over to whom a deteriorating, treasure-laden, underwater shipwreck actually belongs.

Take, for example, the Spanish galleon San José, lost at sea in 1631 when it crashed into a rock off the coast of Panama, in the Pacific Ocean. More than 400,000 silver coins and at least 1,417 silver bars were scattered over 40 submarine miles. The question now is: whose is it?

From the Times:

In the case of the San José booty, commercial treasure hunters, financed in part by an adventure entrepreneur who runs tours to the Titanic, spent over $2 million and 10 years recovering portions of the treasure, only to see their permits questioned and bounty confiscated.

“They called us thieves, looters, plunderers and pirates,” said Dan Porter, a Florida captain who led the expedition to find the San José. “That’s an insult. I hold this work in the highest regard.”

But the industry is engaged in a battle with academic marine archaeologists and Unesco, the Paris-based United Nations agency that tries to protect cultural treasures around the world. Critics say buried coins and loot should be studied and preserved in a museum, not sported around an investor’s neck.

“Treasure hunters are to maritime archaeologists what astrologers are to astronomers,” said Filipe Castro, a nautical archaeologist at Texas A&M University.

This particular dispute has come to involve an investigation by the Department of Homeland Security, the United Nations, Panama’s Ministry of Economy and Finance, and criminal complaints against a private company, Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo (IMDI), backed by international investors including former Philadelphia 76ers owner Pat Croce.

According to the Times, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) estimates that there are over 1,000 such wrecks in the Florida Keys alone.

“This is a fishy business of treasure hunting,” Ulrike Guérin, director of Unesco’s underwater culture program, told the Times. “I have not seen any case that was a success and everyone liking it. It ends up in a slaughter, destroying the heritage.”

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