February 12, 2001

Treasure in the deep? Cuba, firm aim to find out

By Guy Gugliotta. The Washington Post Staff Writer. Monday, February 12, 2001; Page A09.

Twice a year, the ships of the Spanish flota set sail from Porto Bello, in what is now Panama, and from Vera Cruz, on the Mexican coast. They were loaded to the gunwales with Peruvian gold, Mexican silver and jewels from the emerald mines of Colombia.

The ships headed north to the Yucatan Channel, which separates Mexico from Cuba, before curling into the Gulf of Mexico for the run to the Havana harbor. It was there, off Cuba's western tip, that the flota faced its moment of greatest peril.

"That's the corner," Ernesto Tapanes said. "There were a lot of pirates hiding there waiting for them. And that spot probably has the largest number of hurricanes in the region."

Tapanes and his mother, Paulina Zelitsky, are the leaders of Advanced Digital Communications, a Canadian salvage company that has signed a five-year joint-venture contract with the Cuban government to chart the deep waters off the western coast and search for sunken treasure.

Last October, to test the expedition's side-scan sonar and its robot submarine, the expedition found and filmed the wreck of the USS Maine, the fabled battleship whose sinking after a massive explosion in Havana's harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, triggered the Spanish-American war.

In 1912, U.S. government salvors finished building a cofferdam around the hulk, patched it and towed it four miles out to sea, where they scuttled it with full military honors in 3,700 feet of water. To this day, historians dispute whether the Maine was sunk by a Spanish water mine, as U.S. authorities charged at the time, or by an internal explosion, as suggested by a 1976 investigation.

The ADC expedition will not answer this question, for while finding the Maine "proves that we can do what we want to do," Tapanes said, ADC wants to use its search technology to find the wrecks of treasure-laden ships that have not been seen for hundreds of years.

"We're interested in the flotas that were going to Havana," Tapanes said. Off Cabo San Antonio on Cuba's western tip and off the Isle of Youth, about 80 miles east, "we know there is going to be an extreme concentration of wrecks."

Cuba, isolated as the Western Hemisphere's lone communist outpost, has had neither the expertise nor the inclination to examine its deep territorial waters with technology that in the last quarter century has plumbed the oceans' depths far beyond anything ever contemplated by divers.

Using side-scan sonar to locate foreign objects on the sea bottom and small submarines and submersible robots to examine and recover artifacts, explorers have achieved remarkable results: discovering hydrothermal vents near the Galapagos Islands in 8,000 feet of water; filming the RMS Titanic, sunk 12,000 feet deep in the North Atlantic; and salvaging thousands of golden coins and ingots from the Gold Rush-era steamer USS Central America, lying in 8,000 feet of water off the South Carolina coast.

Under the deal negotiated by Zelitsky in 1999, ADC and a Cuban government corporation will map the deep waters off western Cuba and split any salvage 50-50. ADC expects to find a lot, and experts say the company is probably right.

"The western end of Cuba would make sense for picking up a ship from Vera Cruz, and someone coming out of Porto Bello would sail right by the Isle of Youth," said historian Sherry Johnson, a colonial Caribbean specialist at Florida International University. "The Gulf itself was called 'the Spanish lake,' so if you were a pirate, you didn't want to go there."

According to Johnson, Spain sent two flotas to the Indies each year. Both sailed from Sevilla and later Cadiz, bringing mail, wine, finished goods and some foodstuffs to their overseas domains.

They arrived in Santo Domingo on the south coast of the island of Hispaniola, then dispersed -- smaller ships to the islands of the Lesser Antilles, larger vessels to Mexico and Panama on the mainland.

Johnson said the first pirates were French freelancers, who ambushed returning merchantmen off the Spanish coast, a desultory exercise at first, but one that soon had the world's undivided attention after Cortez's conquistadores "hit the jackpot" in Moctezuma's Mexico.

In 1519, modern-day Havana was founded as a gathering place for ships on the way home to Spain. Soon the Spaniards began putting convoys together to guard against piracy, and by the 1560s, sailing in flota was mandated by law.

Outbound flotas, following the practice begun by Christopher Columbus, headed south along the coast of Africa until they picked up prevailing easterly winds that drove them across the Atlantic to Santo Domingo.

Johnson said that by 1500 it was well-known that the same easterlies, especially around Sept. 21, the autumnal equinox, could also bring terrible storms. Columbus rode out a hurricane in the lee of Hispaniola during his second voyage in 1494. Eventually Spain began closing Caribbean ports around the equinox.

When the merchantmen were loaded in Porto Bello and Vera Cruz, they and their escort warships sailed for Havana, driving north to the Yucatan Channel and deep into the Gulf until they picked up a breeze off the North American coast. Then they would "make a big loop" and come straight south to Havana, where the flota formed.

Johnson said the existence of the Gulf Stream, heading northeast through the Florida Straits, up the Atlantic coast of Florida, then across the ocean to Europe, was known as early as 1511, and the flota followed this route home.

It was here, in treacherous waters flanked by the shallows of Salt Key, the Grand Bahama Bank and the Florida Keys, where many treasure ships went down, and where most of the Caribbean's shallow-water salvage takes place. In 1985 divers found the treasure ship Atocha in 55 feet of water.

But the dangers could be just as grave in the Yucatan Channel or off the Isle of Youth, where ocean depths reached 6,000 to 10,000 feet a few miles off coast, far out of reach of divers but well within the capabilities of modern submersibles.

By the mid-1500s, pirates had become a permanent feature of the Caribbean seascape, and even as France and Spain made peace in 1559, Queen Elizabeth I took the throne of England and inaugurated "subscription voyages," in which private captains flew the English flag as they preyed on Spanish ships -- and gave Elizabeth a share of the profits.

Sir Francis Drake made his first fortune in the 1570s pillaging cities and gold-laden mule trains on the Spanish Main. Nearly 100 years later, Henry Morgan sacked Porto Bello, capturing so much booty that Spanish pieces of eight became legal tender in Jamaica.

The ADC expedition is betting that the residue of these and other adventures lies in the ocean depths off western Cuba.

"Just by virtue of Cuba's location and history and its position on this trade route, our success rate should be very high," Tapanes said. "It alleviates the need to look for one specific galleon. If we find bottles, anchors and stuff, we can say, 'There's a wreck here,' and be reasonably sure about it."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company


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