What You Don’t Know About Underwater Treasure Hunting

From Wikimedia Commons

Anything good down there? I asked David Hebb, nodding to the Hudson River slithering slowly outside his New York apartment window. Nothing of value, he said. And if there is anyone who knows, it’s Hebb.

David Hebb’s job is cooler than yours. He speaks six languages, travels all over the world, and you can barely find him on the internet. He has never advertised or sought out work in his current career and yet he has always been employed. No, he is not an international spy.

Hebb is a historian, specializing in the treasure-heavy maritime history period from 1500 to 1800. Really, he’s an archival treasure hunter. He is the guy who finds wrecks for the people who find wrecks. “The strength that I think we bring to research,” Hebb said of himself and his colleagues, “is that we understand the general history, the administrative systems in place at the time which produce records, and where those records might be and how to use them.”

Here is how the process works: You say to Hebb, I’ve got some extra cash, and I want to find a sunken ship full of treasure in the Pacific. Hebb has a think on it and decides that focusing on the Manila Galleon trade is your best bet. Manila Galleons were Spanish ships that loaded silver and other goods in Acapulco, Mexico (then New Spain) and delivered them across the Pacific to Manila in the Philippines (then the Spanish East Indies) once a year.

Hebb’s first stop is the old British Museum Library where “that aroma from old and polished leather,” wafted through the large domed reading room and famous novelists inhabited the desks next to him. There he rummages through the records of every voyage of every Manila Galleon between 1568 and 1815. (Luckily, the Galleon records were condensed by two American scholars.) A promising wreck catches Hebb’s eye. ‘The largest vessel which had been constructed up to that time,’ says one account of the wreck. Worth, ‘four and a half million pesos,’ says another. He jets over to archives in Seville, Spain, where he knows there will be more information.

In the Archivo General de Indias­­­—which occupies the original headquarters of the Spanish-Indies trade controlling body—Hebb digs through large legajos (bundles of documents) brought to him by porters and thinks, “god, I can’t read a word of this.” Slowly, he gets the hang of the strange handwriting and smudged ink. Eventually: Bingo.

Buried in one legajo he finds records referring to the salvage of bronze cannon. The records tell him only the island nearest to where the ship went down, Saipan. But Hebb knows that Jesuit missionaries went to that island forty years after the ship sank and that they regularly communicated with their head porters back in Rome.

Off to Rome goes Hebb. He spends days in the Jesuit Archives going through documents until he finds a clue: a letter in which a Jesuit missionary describes his visit to Agingan Point near where ‘the galleon had been wrecked in 1638.’ And that is how Hebb found the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, perhaps one of the larger and richer galleons of her day.

Hebb handed me a copy of a 1990 National Geographic story on the Concepción recovery expedition. He pointed to a photo of a large commercial vessel (chartered by Pacific Sea Resources, who found the wreck) anchored in brochure-blue water no more than a couple hundred yards offshore. Any closer and it would have been parked on the beach. It looked as though the commute would be shorter if a diver just waddled in from shore, Hebb commented.

The photograph’s turquoise waters quickly plunge into a deep blue as they moved away from the island, indicating that the underwater terrain was steep, and the water deepening quickly. The Concepción would have gone from the safety of deep water to on-the-rocks in no time. The ship sunk in about fifty feet of sea (with much of its cargo retrieved from even lesser depths), shallow compared with the deep-water wrecks of today, but not atypical.

Which brings us to myth one: that most ships go down in the middle of the ocean courtesy of Neptune’s wrath. Ships usually need something to hit in order to sink (Hebb marveled that early marine insurance was priced by distance traveled rather than ports visited, as landfall was a greater invitation to disaster).

Myth Two: All shipwrecks contain treasure. The booty retrieved from the Concepción included over 1,300 pieces of gold jewelry alone. Finding such treasure on the ocean floor is not normal, for reasons Hebb explained.

“There’s a fairly narrow time period in history in which large amounts of precious metals are moved and when sailing is fairly dangerous.” Hence the following recipe for a lucrative future salvage: First, the ship must be valuable. Then it must sink.

It sounds simple enough, but this means that there must be an empire smart enough to acquire and transport valuable metals, but dumb or unlucky enough not to be able to keep its vessels afloat. “The most interesting commercially feasible wrecks are from 1500 to 1800, roughly.” Why? Because in those years, navigational knowledge was not yet established, sailing charts were not set in stone, and wars were forcing people to sail on routes or in seasons in which they normally wouldn’t.

Hebb related the story of the Dromadaire, a French East India Company vessel that left Port Lorient, France and headed for Asia. Hearing rumors of war, and wishing to avoid English warships, the captain received orders to head west of the usual route, into unfamiliar waters, unknown currents and a lot of fog. ‘Breakers!’ someone would have cried from the crow’s nest, meaning breaking waves, “and within a minute they’d smashed right onto it. And that’s very typical, where war has been the prime force in the wreck,” Hebb said.

The 16th century was a good time for shipwrecks — according to Hebb, five to six percent of ships that went out to sea every year ended up on the ocean floor. By the 19th century, the number had dropped to around two percent. Precious metals were still being shipped, but mariners appeared to have gotten their act together, resulting in fewer wrecks.

Even “valuable” shipwrecks come in many flavors. A very small percentage of ships carried treasure, along with food, textiles, lumber and other commodities. While an old ship’s manifest may assign a high value to its cargo, the hold may have held nothing more than common goods. Hebb keeps this in mind when sifting through archives, and especially when reporting back to those who hired him. “A lot of the work that I’ve done has been saying, ‘you’re wasting your time,’” Hebb said.

“People are optimistic because they have to be. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it,” Hebb said. Hebb is not optimistic. He is realistic. Sometimes, despite hearsay, a ship never sank. Sometimes it sank, but without the presumed valuable cargo. Sometimes, there was never any treasure on board to begin with. “There’s a group of shipwrecks in the Azores and if you look in the usual treasure hunting guides, they’ll describe like twenty-two ships or something lost.” This graveyard was one of Hebb’s earlier jobs. A little investigation revealed that the Spanish, fearful of British interception in the Azores, built some fast frigates to take the valuable cargo on a more southern instead of putting it on the slower flotilla of twenty-two. “So the original ships in the fleet did wreck in the Azores, but they didn’t have anything on them.”

Myth Three: As long as there is treasure on the ocean floor, there is a fortune to be made. Treasure hunting requires, at the outset, investors, ones who have either money to lose or a gambling problem (and perhaps both). Historically, these sorts of investors come along during economic booms. The 17th century was no exception. Hebb sent me a quote from fellow historian, Peter Earle, ‘The projector, that too-enthusiastic man with an idea but no money, was a familiar figure in late seventeenth-century England,’ he wrote. Such people could be seen on the Wall Street of their day trying desperately to convince potential benefactors ‘…that the improbable was not only possible but a downright certainty.’

I thought back to a recent treasure hunting exhibit I had visited at the Boston Museum of Science called SHIPWRECK!—a spectacle of pirate swords, gold bars, model ships, interactive displays, and nautical décor, put on by Odyssey Marine Exploration, a treasure hunting firm. The fact that it even exists is a testament to our times.

The boom-and-bust business cycle of treasure hunting dates back hundreds of years, Hebb explained. Treasure hunting picks up when the economy does, luring risk takers with extra cash. This explains the treasure-hunting vogue extending from the 1980’s to 2007. People were optimistic and had extra money from the dot-com boom, and that spilled over into the treasure hunting one. “Then slowly the reality of okay, yes there are a few treasures, but most people don’t make any money or break even,” Hebb explained. The Economist reported that, “Of fifty two annual reports filed by publicly listed shipwreck-recovery firms since 1996, only five show a net profit. In that time Odyssey, the biggest, has racked up losses of nearly $150m.”

Odyssey doesn’t deny the downside. The company states blatantly on its investor page that “Our business involves a high degree of risk,” “The research and data we use may not be reliable,” and that, “The market for any objects we recover is uncertain.”

To Hebb, the last thirty years bear striking similarities to late 17thcentury England with “…a lot of money sloshing around the exchanges of the world and the ‘animal spirits’ of investors high enough to lead them to take a punt on risky but exciting ventures.”

Of course, it’s not all about the money, “I’ve witnessed the satisfaction even hard-headed, tight-fisted business people get from bringing back objects long since lost to the sea,” Hebb said, “There is real pleasure to be derived from achieving such recoveries, a quintessential happiness of the type recognized by Freud.”

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This article is excerpted from Troubled Waters: The Battle Over Shipwrecks, Treasure, and History at the Bottom of the Sea. 

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