Daniel Woolls - The Canadian Press
Spanish Navy vessels looking for sunken treasure off the country's coast have found around 100 possible shipwrecks in the first fruit of a drive to protect Spain's historical heritage from private salvagers seeking gold and other booty.
Two minesweepers and other vessels located the sites in Atlantic waters off the southwestern city of Cadiz as part of a campaign that began Sept. 8 and is due to last two months, the Culture Ministry said Tuesday.
Spain wants to avoid a repeat of a saga that began in 2007 when Tampa, Florida-based Odyssey Marine Exploration found a sunken Spanish galleon and salvaged from it an estimated $500 million in silver coins and other artifacts.
That ship, the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, was sunk by the British navy southwest of Portugal in 1804 while sailing back from South America with more than 200 people on board. A U.S. court ruled last year the loot belongs to Spain but the company has appealed and still has the treasure, holding it in the United States.
Spanish Navy officials were not immediately available to comment on which if any of the new possible shipwrecks might be valuable or when marine archeologists might determine this.
So far, 15 of the sites have been analyzed and the only thing of value that has turned up is an 18th-century anchor, the newspaper El Pais reported Wednesday.
It quoted Navy Admiral Daniel Gonzalez-Aller, the director of the search effort, as saying most of the sites examined so far will be ruled out as worthless and include remains of seaside human settlements and possibly even junk like washing machines.
Spain's defence and culture ministers, Carme Chacon and Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde, boarded one of the minesweepers taking part in the search Tuesday and insisted they are very serious about protecting vestiges of Spain's past.
"Where some see loot, we see our history. Where some look for gold, we find our heritage. Where others would seek to pillage, our calling is to conserve," Chacon said in a speech aboard the ship.
The Culture Ministry estimates there are more than 3,000 sites in Spanish coastal waters with shipwrecks, remains of airplanes, submarines or human settlements, but most of them are remains of ships. Of that total, it says as many as 800 could be in waters off Cadiz.
Future stages of the search campaign will target other areas of Spain's coast, with the ultimate goal of developing a map of where on the seabed shipwrecks lie.