The Romantic Business of Shipwreck Salvaging
In the 1960s, the mere words of finding sunken treasure were enough to raise eyebrows and prompt snickers. People who believed that making a quest for sunken treasure could be profitable were pooh-poohed and written off as naïve crackpots.
Today, that’s all changed. Treasure hunting is a big business that uses the latest scientific knowledge and equipment available. Several international companies spend several thousand dollars a day seeking out and recovering sunken treasure. Today, the golden dreams and fantasies of pirate chests crammed with gleaming gold doubloons diamond-studded jewels are alive and well.
For most of us, the dreams of finding buried treasure stems from stories — some real, some mere “urban legends” — of the Average Joe stumbling across a gold coin while strolling along the beach by his hotel. In the typical version of this story, our man quickly rents some scuba gear and finds a fortune in sunken treasure just a few feet where thousands of professional scuba divers have roamed for decades.
Such instances have happened, but they are exceedingly rare. When such an instance does occur, they are heavily publicized — probably aided in no small part by the cooperation of nearby hotels, who receive free promotions for their vacation paradise. In truth, however, the idea that valuable findings are discovered mostly by amateurs with a fabulous luck is far from true.
The Importance of Research
It is an indisputable fact that almost every significant discovery is made by a small number of professionally working teams consisting of skilled archivists and professional survey and salvage teams, doing archival, survey and salvage work. There are several important factors that have proven essential in almost every successful salvage operation carried out, the first and probably the most important of these being the archival research.
Except by accident, the odds of locating pirate hauls or sunken treasure ships get longer the further one goes back in history. The farther one goes back, the less chance that accurate records have been kept. If records were kept at all, they have usually become distorted over the years or embellished by repetition to the point where any factual basis has disappeared under layers of myth.
For the sake of better odds, modern treasure hunters have occupied themselves with relatively more recent shipwrecks, where there is at least some hope of separating fact from fiction. For today’s professional treasure hunters, that’s a period that includes everything from the late the Middle Ages to the present.
How important is archival research ? The lack of sufficient archival research work is the most common reason why treasure hunting expeditions fail. Without sufficient research, even the most high-tech equipment is rendered useless. Such things as the position of the ship at time of its sinking, the circumstances behind its sinking and its cargo and storage details are just a few of the details that must be considered.
What’s more, there are only a handful of archival researchers who have the knowledge and experience to locate information about ships and their cargoes and then correctly decipher the information from documents and ledgers that are often several hundred years old. In fact, almost every significant recovery has first been discovered in the archives by a handful of competent marine historians and archival researchers.
Pirate and Sunken Treasures
The quest for pirate treasure is one of the oldest and most romantic aspects of treasure hunting. Like the pirates themselves, however, their booty can be quite elusive. Though not as exciting or romantic — and far less elusive — are the wrecks littering the world’s shipping lanes and coastal waters. The approximate locations of major shipwrecks have been recorded for hundreds of years, especially if the ships were known to be loaded with gold, silver and other precious cargo.
While the roots of modern piracy date back to the 13th century, the golden age of piracy is generally recognized as having been born with Columbus’ voyages to the New World. The same might be said of shipwrecks. For the richly laden galleons and frigates that had pirates slobbering all over themselves were easy prey to other perils of the high seas — strong currents, sudden and violent storms, rocks, reefs and shallows.
Nowhere was this truer than in the Caribbean and adjoining waters of the Atlantic, the region loosely known as the Spanish Main. By the end of the 1700s and early 1800s piracy had virtually vanished. No such statement could be made about the perils of the deep, however, as the waters of the Spanish Main continued to exact its own toll on treasure ships.
Coins submerged in the ocean can end up in many grades. For example, depth, temperature and underwater ocean currents can all play a part in scattering the coins or shifting them on the ocean bottom. In addition, gold coins are only slightly affected by salt water while silver coins can suffer badly.
Examples are the coins recovered from the wreck of the S.S. Central America, which went down in 1857. The coins had sunk so far that it was as if they had been stored in a freezer all those years. And with little or no current at that depth, the coins settled on the ocean floor in stacks and were not swept across the ocean floor to be scratched and pounded by rocks and sand like other sunken treasure coins! When they were discovered it was like unlocking the vault of the San Francisco Mint in 1857 and finding stacks of freshly-minted coins !
The Future of Shipwreck Salvaging
Recently, the United Nations General Assembly considered a resolution that requires all sunken treasure to be returned to the country of origin, leaving treasure hunters and coin collectors with nothing ! With a law like that, treasure hunters won’t profit from salvaging the wrecks and these beautiful and spectacular coins will be lost in museum archives, forever off-limits to collectors. Does this mean the end of shipwreck salvaging ?
Perhaps, but the adventure and romance of seeking out and finding a shipwreck that has been undisturbed for centuries is, for many people, a draw that is too powerful to resist.