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Meet the adventurers scouring the sea for long lost treasures

3 December 2021• Written by Cecile Gauert

More than four million shipwrecks are said to be hidden beneath the waves. BOAT meets the bold adventurers dedicated to discovering them - and bringing their cargo to the surface.

Suspended in 57 metres of murky water in the Java Sea above an enormous pile of cups, plates and jars, Luc Heymans had an eerie feeling. “I felt like I’d had one too many drinks,” he says.

He wasn’t intoxicated. What made him dizzy, aside from the depth he was no longer accustomed to, was the realisation that he was looking at a treasure of unimaginable value. What lay beneath him that day in February 2004 was the wreck of a 10th century open deck cargo ship and a half a million artefacts piled on a tumulus more than 30 metres high and spread over an area of nearly 1,600 square metres. “I knew I was in front of something phenomenal,” he says. The unidentified wreck was later called Cirebon, after a village 145 kilometres away on the coast of the island of Java.

Credit: Alucia Productions

Heymans spent 20 years as a world-class sailor before embarking on new adventures on board a converted Russian trawler that he chartered to various organisations. One of his clients was renowned underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, who has brought to light civilisations that vanished in cataclysms and ships lost on ancient trade routes.

Heymans worked with Goddio in the Philippines before he decided to go it alone. “In the Philippines, you get a lot of information but very little of it turns out to be real, ”he says. “We wasted a lot of time, but it was fun.”

Credit: Lanmas/Alamy Stock Photo

Then he got an interesting call about a wreck in Indonesia. Local fishermen are often the best source to identify wrecks. They know their waters better than anyone and can identify variations in colours and currents that can escape others. Sometimes a clue to what’s lying below comes to the surface, like a piece of pottery snagged in a fishing net. It was fishermen who tipped off the authorities about what became known as the Cirebon wreck. Heymans had heard lots of stories by now, but this time the local intel had been good. The wreck was real, and it was amazing. He negotiated with multiple Indonesian government modalities and permits, set up his company Cosmix Underwater Research and set out to work with a team of 75 people, 25 to 30 of them working on land to desalinate the pieces retrieved from the ocean floor. In all, it took 22,000 dives – each one lasting 25 minutes followed by around 90 minutes of decompression – to get most of the artefacts out.

He worked closely with specialists in ancient wood and metals and several museums, most notably The Royal Museum of Mariemont in his native Belgium, in addition to the Indonesian government who at the time proved less interested in the historical significance of the wreck than its monetary value.

Credit: Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images

The ship, somewhere around 32 metres, is thought to have sunk in the year 970, falling prey to the area’s strong currents and a heavy load of raw materials and goods from East Africa, Persia, India, Southeast Asia and China.

The discovery of this wreck showed historians that Islam had already reached Indonesia in the 11th century, two centuries earlier than commonly thought. Among the artefacts were Islamic prayer beads and a mould that served to make plates engraved with the name of Allah, plus 150 pieces in crystal rock, including a small fish that was designed to hold incense or perfume – one of Heymans’ favourite pieces. While aspirating the sand, the salvage team used a screen to prevent small pieces from getting trapped, recovering multiple coins, 4,000 rubies and 11,000 pearls in the process.

Read More/Where to find the world's best wreck dives
“Treasure is trouble,” says John Chatterton, an American wreck diver
Credit: Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

The recovery of such treasures is usually contentious. “Treasure is trouble,” says John Chatterton, an American wreck diver, who co-hosted the popular television series Deep Sea Detectives – and this find was no exception. When estimates for the hundreds of recovered objects reached sums in the tens of millions of dollars, the Indonesian government baulked at the agreement it had struck with Heymans and threw two of his head divers in jail. Eventually, after a much-publicised auction failed to attract bidders and the government was unable to find fault with the wreck salvage company, the Indonesian authorities relented. Cosmix was allowed to take the 50 per cent share that had been agreed to and quietly found a buyer. Qatar Museums was interested in what the treasure said about the country’s extensive historic trade connections and acquired the pieces.

Selling artefacts is what sets underwater archaeology and treasure hunting apart. But for a private salvage company, that is the only way to recoup expenses and maybe even make a profit, although that’s not easy.

Luc Heymans reveals new unearthed treasures
Credit: Romeo Gacad/AFP via Getty Images

Even successful treasure hunters, like the late Mel Fisher who became a multimillionaire after a nearly two-decade-long-search for the treasure of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha followed by a dogged legal fight against the state of Florida, have said they’re in it for the adventure. The gain is never certain. The old adage of finder’s keepers is more often than not a fallacy.

“You get out what you put in it,” says Jimmy Gadomski, a technical diver and yacht captain who has worked the wreck of the Pulaski, a steamship that sank off the coast of North Carolina in 1838 along with 128 of its crew and passengers and all their belongings. “There is money to be made, but the majority of this industry is going to be based on the thrill and excitement of treasure hunting.”

Diving off Chincoteague island in search of Spanish galleons in 1998
Credit: Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Finding shiny pieces of anything on the ocean floor often means entering a world of lengthy legal entanglements. Admiralty law is keeping courts busy globally, pitting investors, institutions and even entire countries against salvage companies. Spain has been particularly active in blocking dispersion of treasures it claims it owns, a fact that Heymans finds particularly ironic: “Where did Spain go steal all of this in the first place?”  He is also not a fan of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage, which effectively prevents private companies from working wrecks 100 years and older. Few public institutions have the funds to salvage and preserve wrecks, and over time they degrade or fall prey to looters. “In the end, there remains no information for anyone,” Heymans adds.

More than 60 countries have signed on to the convention since 2001, the US being one exception, and that has redefined the business of treasure hunting at a time when it is easier than ever before to reach the bottom of the ocean.

Diving for sunken riches
Credit: Luc Heymans

This was very much on the mind of wreck divers seeking a pirate ship off the Dominican Republic in 2008, adding time pressure to the search. Chatterton and his partners were hired to locate the Golden Fleece, a ship that had been captained by British pirate Joseph Bannister. They were mindful the window was closing as the Dominican Republic looked to sign the convention. The country’s waters had been for years some of the most fertile for treasure hunters, along with the Bahamas and the American Southeast.

The floundering economies of Europe, and particularly Spain, fuelled the growing appetite for gold and silver extracted from the mines of the New World. During the early part of the 16th century, “virtually all shipping between Spain and New World was directed at Hispaniola”, according to pioneering treasure hunter and underwater archaeologist Robert F Marx. “Throughout the 16th century the waters of the New World were more or less a ‘Spanish lake’ and virtually all ships were Spanish built,” he writes in Shipwrecks in the Americas. The voyage was dangerous, the waters treacherous and five percent of the Spanish fleet never made it back home. Often the ships were wrecked in relatively shallow water and there were early attempts to recover the treasures they carried, even by contemporaries. However, early divers could not rely on much more than exceptional lung capacity, strong muscle and occasionally crude diving bells. More modern versions of these were used in early attempts to recover wrecks with some success.

Read More/Superyacht Owner Carl Allen on the Thrills of Treasure Hunting
Credit: Luc Heymans

Much more sophisticated technology has since come to the rescue. While technical divers are still essential to the recovery of sunken artefacts, a host of equipment is making it easier to pinpoint the location of wrecks.

Blue Water Rose, for example, a 24-metre commercial vessel operated by Blue Water Ventures International to search the Pulaski wreck is fitted with a side-scan sonar, caesium magnetometers, Overhauser gradiometers and advanced mapping and metal-detection software. It is also fitted, like many such ships, with prop wash deflectors that blow water straight down to create holes in the sand that divers then search for artefacts, pieces of iron, wood, anything that can establish the identity of the wreck. It is in one such hole that Gadomski found his most significant piece yet, the base of a candlestick with the inscription “SB Pulaski”, which established the identity of the wreck – and conferred rights to the salvage company.

Whereas in the 1970s treasure hunter Teddy Tucker surveyed the waters around Bermuda from a window washer chair hitched to a hot air balloon, today, ultralights that fit on a boat deck can be an integral part of the toolbox.

Limiting Factor, the world's deepest diving manned submersible
Credit: Reeve Joliffe/EYOS Expeditions

Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) and pocket subs are also affording underwater explorers new opportunities to go deeper and find wrecks where no one could go in earlier years. The late Paul Allen was fascinated with battleships from the Second World War. His Vulcan organisation used ROVs to confirm locations of wrecks detected by a battery of high-tech equipment able to scan the sea floor. An early mission using his explorer Octopus resulted in the recovery of the bell of British Navy ship HMS Hood from the deep North Atlantic in 2015 and the largest navy wreck ever found, the Japanese battleship Musashi, among others.

A couple of years ago, it was a different Allen and his fleet that made the cover of BOAT International’s US Edition. When he retired, Carl Allen decided to pursue, at least some of the time, his long-held passion for treasure hunting. “It was Fisher and his revelation that the ocean floor was basically littered with treasure that sparked the fertile imagination of a 20-something amateur diver. Instantly I got the disease, I almost went to work for the man,” he says.

Gadomski with gold coins from the Pulaski wreck
Credit: Jimmy Gandonsky

After that meeting, off and on when time allowed, he did some diving around Puerto Rico and the Turks and Caicos and researched a famous wreck in the Bahamas. Once he was free from his daily business duties, he set out on an actionpacked retirement plan. He assembled a fleet for his company Allen Exploration, acquiring a Damen support vessel with space for an Icon A5 aeroplane and a Triton 3300/3 submarine to run alongside his 50-metre Westport, Gigi. And then, having negotiated permissions with the Bahamian government, he began surveying the waters where the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas met her demise in 1656. Of all the galleons, she was one of the most famous and Allen had been studying her for years. “I don’t need the money; I am in it for the history,” he says.

Marx, who has been called the true father of underwater archaeology and was later knighted by Spain, located part of the wreck in 1972. A couple of wreck salvage operations took place since but, as far as records show, only managed to find a minimal amount of coins or gold, or at least far less than what she was known to carry. Often the galleons also carried contraband far exceeding the declared goods in their castles. The Maravillas’ manifest kept in the “General Archive of the Indies” in Seville’s old merchants’ exchange was thousands of pages long and Allen, like many others, believes the bulk of the treasure, including a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary and child in solid gold – a way, Allen says, for the ailing King Philip IV to buy his way into heaven – are yet to be found. Allen’s search was paused after Hurricane Dorian’s destruction refocused his efforts on helping the Bahamas recover, followed by Covid-19 this year. But plans are afoot for the creation of a museum dedicated to the wreck.

Mel Fisher struck gold with Nuestra Señora de Atocha
Credit: Charles Wenzelberg/AP/Shutterstock

On the other side of the planet, Heymans spends a lot of time on his 26-metre sailing catamaran Lonestar, which he charters, but the lure of sunken treasures isn’t diminished. “It goes back to childhood,” he says, “What do kids do in their sandbox? They dig for treasure. It’s true what they say: adults are still children, only the toys get bigger.”

When we caught up with Heymans in Indonesia in May, he was evaluating another wreck from which was recovered a cannon dated from 1617 that belonged to the East India Company. “If this interests someone, even a TV company, to do a partnership with Indonesia, this is certainly an interesting wreck and an opportunity to do a great archaeological operation,” he says

EYOS Expeditions uses state-of-the-art tech to explore the oceans’ most inaccessible wrecks
Credit: Triton Submarines

All told, there are an estimated four million wrecks beneath the world’s oceans, from the antiquity wrecks of the Mediterranean to modern commercial wrecks. And it seems every so often, treasure just washes up on a beach.  But where is the fun in that? It’s the search that is so exciting.

“Treasure hunting conjures up many romantic notions, but in addition to shipwrecks there are aircraft, military hardware,” says Rob McCallum, co-founder of EYOS Expeditions, who has spent his fair share of time exploring the deep as a diver and deep-submarine expert. “Each item represents a piece of history, a rich tapestry of archaeological artefacts stretching back through time and spread across the seafloor.”

Treasure for the tking

The Treasure of Lima

British Captain William Thompson went rogue in 1820 after he was hired to carry the Peruvian capital’s riches to safety on board the Mary Dear. Instead, he and his crew headed for Cocos Island, 500km off the coast of Costa Rica, where they buried the treasure, including gold statues of Madonna and child – or so the stories tell us. Pirates were also said to regularly stash their loot on the island. Yet more than 500 expeditions have failed to turn up much more than a few coins. Among interested parties over the years were Lord Fitzwilliam, who arrived on Cocos on board the yacht Veronique. Sir Malcolm Campbell built Blue Bird to sail to the island but died before he could set sail. Tara Getty, who bought Blue Bird, picked up the mantle a few years ago, taking his family on an adventure that included a stopover in Cocos, thus realising Campbell’s dream (read the full story at boatint.com/gettycocos).

The San Miguel

This Spanish galleon was trying to escape a hurricane in 1715 when it was wrecked off Amelia Island in Florida. It was the fastest in a fleet of 11 and loaded with the greatest cargo – its treasure is estimated at $2 billion. Amelia Research & Recovery LLC has been searching for the wreck for several years, but the ship and her treasure have yet to be found.

Santa Maria

One of the three ships from Christopher Columbus’s fleet to the New World was reportedly lost off Haiti on Christmas Eve 1492. In 2014, experts contested the claim of a treasure hunter who professed to have found her. She may still be out there or, as some purport, may never have sunk at all and may have been beached by Columbus and later burned by indigenous Haitians.

Flor del la Mar

This 360-tonne Portuguese merchant vessel sank in a storm while navigating the Strait of Malacca in 1511 and was ripped in two. The ship, according to Robert F. Marx, was “the richest vessel ever lost at sea, with its hold loaded with 200 coffers of precious stones, diamonds from the small half-inch size to the size of a man’s fist.” Treasure.net puts its value at $2.6 billion.


First published in the September 2020 issue of BOAT International.

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