On Nov. 5, 1605, a fleet of galleons laden with treasure from the New World sailed serenely over the azure waters of the Caribbean toward Spain - and into the path of a hurricane.
Near midnight, the storm smashed into the eight ships and their 1,400 crewmen and passengers near a string of tiny islands between Nicaragua and Jamaica. Five ships sank, killing at least 1,100 people in the 17th century’s worst naval disaster.
“There was nothing humanly possible we could do … only pray,” Capt. Felipe de Manrique, commander of one of the three surviving galleons, wrote in his ship’s log.
Now an American company and Colombia’s government say they have found the wrecks and are working together in an effort to recover a treasure that records in Spain indicate could be worth at least $2 billion.
Ironically, 1995’s tempestuous hurricane season - the worst in six decades - forced divers to suspend work last summer. They expect to resume in early February.
Participants will say little about the recovery project, which is being conducted in waters guarded by the Colombian navy and infested with sharks.
Information about the precise location, which was discovered by Pacific Geographic Society, a company based in Long Beach, Calif., is kept in a government vault in Bogota.
Under its contract with the government, Pacific Geographic is responsible for recovering treasure as well as artifacts and other materials of interest to archaeologists. Colombia will keep all the items and pay Pacific Geographic up to 15 percent of the value of the materials recovered.
The remains of the fleet are in waters claimed by Colombia, near Serranilla Key in the San Andres archipelago.
With Nicaragua disputing Colombia’s rights to the archipelago, Colombian warships are patrolling the area to put muscle behind its sovereignty claim and to keep away anyone looking to steal the gold, silver, emeralds and other treasures that went down with the fleet.
A team of two dozen people, working off the boat Tropic Explorer, has found cannons and retrieved jewelry and shards of pottery.
The wreck is only several dozen feet deep, so plenty of natural light illuminates the scene, said John McBride, the Colombian government’s project representative.
The wood of the galleons has long rotted away. Most of the hundreds of corpses were probably devoured by sharks, McBride said. Any skeletal remains would have been eaten by creatures on the sea floor, unless they were quickly buried by shifting sand.
Although the disaster’s general location had been long known, it took meticulous research in Spanish archives and a survey of the sea floor with metal detectors to pinpoint the fleet’s remains, McBride said.
There are so many sharks there that even veteran divers are fearful when they enter the warm waters.
“I’ve seen more sharks in three days there than in all my 22 years of diving,” McBride said.
In only a few weeks last summer, the divers killed five sharks with “bang sticks” - poles tipped with shotgun shells - when they got too close.
Before they left because of the storms, the divers covered their excavation with a plastic sheet to protect it from the elements and weighed it down with sandbags.
When they return, they will have to carefully examine each piece they find.
To avoid paying a treasure tax to the Spanish king, about half the riches that went to Spain were smuggled in. One captain even had an anchor forged in gold, then painted it over to fool Spanish inspectors.
At another wreck in the Caribbean, divers found a barrel filled with tar, McBride said. They didn’t pay it much mind, until X-rays revealed the tar was hiding a cache of gold.
The items found so far are being treated in a painstaking process in a laboratory. Materials that have spent centuries on the sea floor can be ruined when brought to the surface if they are not treated properly.
“Once we get everything up, we’ll have at least six or 10 years of lab work ahead of us,” McBride said.
Authorities say artifacts that the divers find are as important as any treasure.
“For historians, every item found will be a fingerprint of that era. It will be like looking back in time,” said Carlos Medellin of the government’s Antiquities and Shipwrecks Commission.
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