The Search for Sunken Treasure, Exploring the World’s Great Shipwrecks

by | Aug 4, 2017 | Treasure Stories | 0 comments

More than 325 documented ships sank around the Cayman Islands, which were in the path of sailing vessels plying between Cuba, the last stop before setting out on the open ocean for Europe, and the Spanish Main. Over the years, amateur and professional divers have discovered a substantial amount of sunken treasure in the Caymans. One of the most valuable and historically important finds was also the most serendipitous. In 1970, a young couple from Dalton, Georgia were snorkeling off the beach in front of the Holiday Inn Hotel on Grand Cayman Island when they spotted a metallic glint on the sandy bottom in water no more than waist deep. To their great astonishment it turned out to be a gold cross covered with diamonds. They began fanning the fine white sand and within minutes had uncovered a few links of what proved to be a thirteen-foot (4-m) gold chain. In spite of their excitement, they managed to keep mum and rented scuba equipment so they could search the area more thoroughly.

What they pulled out of the gin-clear water that day ranks as one of history’s most phenomenal treasure finds. Under a thin layer of sand they found a large bar of platinum dated 1521, seven bars of silver, many pieces of silver jewelry and a cache of more than 300 pounds (135 kg) of gold objects, still smooth and shining after centuries underwater. There were heavy gold discs, a gold bracelet in the form of a serpent covered with emeralds, more than fifty gold Aztec figurines and an impressive gold signet ring unmistakably of European origin.

The dazed young couple not only struck it rich; they also solved a 450-year-old mystery. The signet ring held the answer to the question of what had become of the Santiago, a conquistadors’ ship laden with Aztec plunder that disappeared in 1522 en route from Mexico to Spain. The coat of arms on the massive ring was that of the de Leon family of Spain, whose most illustrious member was Juan Ponce de Leon, the discoverer of Florida. The captain of the Santiago was his brother, Rodrigo, who accompanied Cortez to Mexico, and evidently lost his ship off Grand Cayman Island.

Another shipwreck associated with Cortez is La Nicolasa, which in 1526 sailed from Cuba from Vera Cruz, Mexico, with supplies for Cortez and his men in Mexico. During a storm the vessel was wrecked on a reef off Cancun Island on the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. It too was discovered by chance. In 1956, a Mexican lawyer, Jose de Jesus Lima, and his sons were spear-fishing when they came upon a large bronze cannon and two smaller iron cannons. The underwater explorer Edwin Link heard of their discovery and visited the site, which is covered over by a thick deposit of coral. He found four more cannon and dozens of stone cannonballs. The following summer, the Mexican underwater club Conversation, Education, Diving, Archaeology Museums International (CEDAM) explored the shipwreck and recovered five cannons and two anchors.

In 1527, a year after La Nicolasa sank, two other conquistador-era ships were wrecked farther down the coast of Yucatan near the Mayan ruins of Tulum, opposite Cozumel Island. In 1526, Cortez had dispatched his lieutenant Francisco de Montejo to conquer the Mayan inhabitants of Yucatan. De Montejo and a large expeditionary force of soldiers left Veracruz in the brigantine La Gavarra, accompanied by the carvel San Jeronimo. The ships anchored in sight of the cliff top temple complex at Tulum and the men went ashore. De Montejo anticipated a long and difficult campaign. To keep his force from deserting he had the ships unloaded, set on fire and sunk, as Cortez had done upon reaching Veracruz. Thus the Spaniards had no choice but to subdue the Indians or die in the attempt. In fact, most of them were killed. The Maya resisted so fiercely that Yucatan was not completely pacified until 1546.