- Divers hunt for 500 golden galleons -
from The SUNDAY TIMES by Derek Baldwin
It has been described as one of the world's greatest treasure hunts. A team of divers plunged into the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean last week in a quest for the first of hundreds of Spanish galleons that sank off the coast of Cuba three centuries ago or more, laden with gold and silver pillaged from Latin America.
In an unprecedented deal with President Fidel Castro, a Canadian company, Visa Gold, has won the right to excavate coral encrusted shipwreck sites off the northwestern coast of Cuba and around the tiny island of Juventud, which lies to the south.
The venture, which could be the most lucrative in maritime history, is not only expected to uncover the world's largest known trove of sunken Spanish silver and gold but also looks likely to provide new insights into the ancient civilizations of the Aztecs and Incas, whose artifacts were seized and transported to Spain in armadas of up to 100 ships.
From the early 16th century, when Hernan Cortes, the legendary conqueror of Mexico, pioneered the so-called silver route across the Atlantic, Havana's deep harbor was Spain's gateway to the New World. The conquistadors of the countries two great treasure fleets, the Tierra Firme and the Nueva Espana, put in there on their way to and from the main-land of south and central America. Records show as many as 13,000 vessels passed through Cuba over the years. They carried the treasure back to the Spanish port of Seville, then the world's commercial capital.
Many ships failed to complete the journey, however, falling victim to pirates, buccaneers and vicious storms. Their precious cargoes often ended up on the sea bed. The ships that went down included the Santissima Trinidad, an Altimiranta-class galleon armed with 60 cannon. It foundered in a hurricane in 1711, with the loss of $400m (£242m) in silver coins and other booty bound for King Philip V of Spain.
About 400 sunken Spanish ships are believed to lie in and around Havana harbor today, with 100 more to the west. They are thought to contain gold bullion, silver coins, ingots, gems and emerald studded jewelry worth billions of dollars. While American salvers have methodically scoured the seabed off Florida, Cuban gunboats have kept them out of the island's waters for four decades.
"So many other oceans in the world have given up their secrets," said Phill Wright, a veteran Canadian archeologist who led a team of Cuban divers into pounding surf about 10 miles west of Havana last week. "This place still has wall to wall ships underwater that remain intact hundreds of years later. I don't expect it will be difficult to find them. There are shipwrecks of many periods all long the area that we are searching."
Cuba's state owned Carisub corporation tried for years to bring the treasure to the surface but was frustrated by lack of sophisticated equipment. Last year Castro, a keen diver in his youth, approved a deal under which Visa Gold will keep half the proceeds of its excavations in return for its expertise in retrieval.
After preliminary dives last week, the Canadian team was confident it was on the right trail. It is expected to make thousands more dives over the next four years, using remote tracking equipment to trace 93 wrecks.
"We found three piles which were definitely ballast from a very old ship," said Wright. "Whether it's the Santissima Trinidad won't be certain until we can make more dives. We also found some pieces of metal and ceramic shards in an area where the coral had broken away, exposing plates and bowls locked inside it."
Planes that have flown over the site have taken photographs showing a row of five cannon and a large pile of ballast stones under the water with what appears to be the bow of a large ship protruding from sand and coral.
A giant gouge in the coral reef suggests that a large ship, loaded to the gunwales, slammed into it in a storm, probably killing most of those on board as giant waves pulverized the crew at passengers.
Further evidence has come from documents unearthed bv the Canadian company in the Archives of the Indies in Seville. A treasure map drawn up by a sugar plantation owner pinpointed the location of Spanish salvage efforts immediately after the Trinidad sank on December 4, 1711. Some of the contents of her holds were retrieved before a second tropical storm arrived two days later, sweeping part of the hull into deeper water. A hurricane hit the coast 10 days later scattering the ship's cargo further afield.
Ed Burtt, the Canadian expedition leader, says archival documentation shows much of the treasure remains, although I.9m silver pieces of eight were saved. "It's hard to explain the feeling," he said as he uncrated and calibrated $150,000 worth of search equipment that was shipped to Havana from Canada earlier this month.
"There is a sense of reverence being down there with history - knowing a physical link to the past has remained untouched for so long. This is a wonderful chance for us to find and preserve a glorious chapter in history. Those who lost their lives in the service of their king will not be forgotten."
Suddenly Within Reach, Millions in Sunken Treasure
From the New York Times by By Gordon Arnaut
Visa Gold Resources, Toronto company, has been awarded five-year contract for salvage rights to treasures that lie sunken in Cuba's territorial waters; Spanish galleon known as Santissima Trinidad, which went down in fierce hurricane in 1711 loaded with $400 million worth of gold bullion, silver ingots and coins, has lain undisturbed for centuries, guarded by Fidel Castro's gunboats since 1959; some feel Cuban waters contain richest concentration of sunken Spanish treasure anywhere, but recovering ships and their loot is formidable task; only tiny fraction of sunken treasure around globe has ever been found...