It’s the oldest shipwreck ever found in Canada and one of the most important in the world: a 16th-century Basque whaling galleon that lies at the bottom of Labrador’s Red Bay, a sunken relic from the Age of Discovery that symbolizes the early spread of European civilization — and commerce — to the New World.
Now, the 450-year-old San Juan, a jumble of thick beams and broken barrels lying in shallow waters off the site of a 1560s-era whaling station in the Strait of Belle Isle, is to be resurrected by a team of Spanish maritime heritage experts planning to construct a full-scale, seaworthy replica of the original 16-metre, three-masted vessel.
Parks Canada underwater archeologists, who discovered the 250-tonne San Juan in 1978 after following documented clues about a lost galleon traced by federal archivist Selma Barkham, will meet this week with Spanish officials to begin sharing decades of amassed research on the ship’s design and construction, Postmedia News has learned.
Then, to mark the Basque city of San Sebastian’s year as Europe’s “cultural capital” in 2016, Spain expects to christen its floating tribute to the whaling crews that — for several decades during the 16th century — transported millions of barrels of whale oil to Europe from the future Canada, a treasure every bit as valuable at the time as the gold taken by Spanish conquistadors from more southerly parts of the Americas.
“Right from the start, we thought this was a really, really great idea,” said Marc-André Bernier, Parks Canada’s chief of underwater archeology. “For archeologists, this is basically the ultimate final product.
You’re taking all of the research from a site that’s been excavated, then you take it to the maximum in experimental archeology,” physically recreating “what is lost.”
For Robert Grenier, Bernier’s predecessor as Canada’s top marine archeologist and the leader of the Red Bay discoveries more than three decades ago, the planned construction of a San Juan replica is “like a dream.”