Spain's seabed goldmine
Spain's seabed is home to the wrecks of hundreds of ships laden with treasures plundered during the country's imperial zenith. Now the battle is on to reclaim them
Gazing from the beaches of southern Spain into the blue waters of the Mediterranean, few tourists have any idea what really lies beneath the waves.
Aside from jellyfish, the occasional whale and the usual flotsam and jetsam, at the bottom of one of the world's busiest waterways lies something many a holidaymaker would love to get their hands on.
Maritime historical experts say that, scattered around the Spanish coastline, lies more gold and silver than in the vaults of the Bank of Spain. There are said to be the 700 shipwrecks, from Roman barges, to Spanish Golden Age galleons and British aircraft carriers.
Many of the galleons were laden with a fortune in gold, silver and bronze plundered from colonies between the 16th and 19th centuries when Spain's empire stretched from the Americas to the Philippines.
Freak storms, the gall of audacious pirates or the guns of rival navies all sent them to the bottom while they sailed the perilous India Run, bringing treasures from Spain's colonies in the Philippines and the Americas. Marine archaeologists believe that lying under the waves in the Mediterranean alone could be sunken treasure worth 100bn (73bn), but all acknowledge the real value will probably never be known. Elsewhere, scattered around parts of the globe, in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Pacific, lie more sunken millions. Now, hundreds of years after the gold baubles and silver ducats went to the bottom of the briny, there is an international battle to lay claim to this treasure.
Centuries on from the Spanish conquistadores, their modern descendants are determined the millions in gold and silver will not be claimed by 21st-century pirates who employ hi-tech gear to retrieve the treasures.
The Spanish Ministry of Culture has commissioned the marine archaeologists Nerea Arqueologia Subacuatica (NAS) to draw up a treasure map, listing all the sunken galleons around the world to stop others "stealing their heritage".
Spanish officials were angered after the US salvage company, Odyssey Marine Explorations, spirited away hundreds of gold and silver coins worth a reputed 250m from a "secret" wreck said to lie off the Spanish coast.
Odyssey, based in Tampa, Florida, would name the wreck only as the Black Swan, adding to Spanish fears that their precious treasure was being taken from under their noses. Odyssey Explorer, the company's salvage vessel, was boarded by the Spanish navy to stop it leaving Spanish waters with its cargo, but she was later released.
Spain has claimed the coins and other loot was in Spanish seas; the Nasdaq-listed company insists it was discovered in international waters.
But Odyssey's row with the Spanish over the Black Swan has led to speculation that the salvage company had actually found the wreck of the British ship Merchant Royal, which sank in bad weather off the Isles of Scilly in 1641. As the dispute plays out in a courtroom in Tampa, Spain is determined it will not be outwitted by treasure-hunters again. Javier Noriega, the head of NAS, shows a determination, bordering on evangelical, to stop the treasure-hunters exploiting historically important sites for personal gain.
"What has occurred already is as if someone had carried off the Giralda [Seville's landmark cathedral tower]," he says. "Spanish archaeologists do not see the goods on board a wreck as something to make money out of. We don't talk in terms of treasure. We are interested in research and what research can tell us about the past."
So far, Mr Noriega's map includes vessels previously pin-pointed. They include Nuestra Señora La Mercedes, laden with gold, silver and other valuables, which was sunk by a British warship off Portugal in 1804.
Spanish law forbids the trade of anything considered part of the country's heritage. But legally, there is a grey area when it comes to foreign companies being allowed to search for sunken galleons, in return for a share of the booty.
Odyssey has struck a deal with the Spanish and British governments to excavate the site of HMS Sussex, which went down in the Gulf of Cadiz in 1694 with gold and silver worth a reputed 2.94bn. The salvagers will get a share of anything excavated, but archaeologically significant artefacts will stay in the hands of the British Admiralty.
The Spanish plan suggests attitudes have changed towards preserving its underwater treasures. For many years, archaeologists and academics complained that the treasure-hunters always got there first because of lack of interest and resources employed by the authorities to protect their heritage.
Greg Stemm, co-founder of Odyssey, defends the company's approach to archaeology, insisting that treasure-hunting, scientific investigation and making a profit are compatible. "It is all very well that Spain is talking about protecting its sunken treasures, but if it doesn't do anything about them, they will just remain at the bottom of the ocean, where they are likely to be destroyed," he says.
In 1983, Spain abandoned the wreck of the galleon Santa Margarita. It was gleefully claimed by the American treasure-hunter Mel Fischer.
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