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Original Issue

Buried but still a treasure

Reversing the practice of stripping sunken ships, salvors of the "Evangelista" in the Bahamas restored the frigate's cannon for the pleasure of sightseeing divers

Peter Copeland drew many sketches initially on a piece of slate, sitting in scuba gear under 30 feet of water in the Bahamas. Copeland is good at this. He is a weathered 48-year-old who first studied the sea as a merchant mariner and later gained a considerable reputation as a marine archaeologist, historical illustrator and consultant to the Smithsonian Institution. Now at his home in Arlington, Va., Copeland is compiling an illustrated log that will depict both the treasure hunt and one of the most unusual occurrences in the salvage game. Whoever heard of anyone bringing up a sunken treasure—and then putting it back where he found it?

Copeland hopes to complete his work over the next three months. From it will emerge the anatomy of the treasure hunt: the painstaking search, the tedium and danger faced by a band of divers, the elation upon finding artifacts. Then the finality of laying a sunken wreck to rest. It was this final act, accomplished last December, that was the most startling. Copeland and the others stood on the deck of a gently rolling converted LCT off Walker's Cay and lowered cannon after cannon over the side. Then they carefully put them back into the cavity of the old ship where they had been found.

Seekers of sunken treasure start every story with a flashback, and this one involves the dark night of Jan. 5, 1656. The 650-ton Spanish galleon Nuestra Se√±ora de las Maravillas was part of the treasure fleet headed for home from the Spanish Indies in the western colonies. She was loaded, as ships always are in these flashbacks: 5½ million registered pesos, precious stones, jewelry and, most wonderful of all, a life-sized madonna made of solid gold. The seas were calm.

Suddenly the Maravillas ran into shoal water. Her captain ordered the vessel about. But in coming around she rammed another ship and, with a hole stove in her hull, she settled to the bottom. The top of the ship's rigging remained above the surface, and 58 survivors from among the passengers and crew clung to it and were saved.

The Spanish set about salvage operations and over the next three years are reported to have recovered 1½ million of the pesos. A large portion of this haul was consigned to two smaller ships, which 'were dispatched for Puerto Rico. They did not make it; both vessels were wrecked on the south side of Gorda Cay, below Grand Bahama Island. Meanwhile, because the current runs swiftly where the Maravillas went down, her hull was quickly buried in the shifting sand and her cache was no longer accessible to the Spanish salvors. End of flashback.

Many attempts have been made to find the Maravillas. One claim on the vessel comes from Bob Marx, an adventurer-diver-author, whose dive team reported it had recovered about a ton of gold and silver coins, silver bars and artifacts from a galleon in 1972, '74 and '75. Marx insists that the vessel was the Maravillas. He says the galleon broke into two sections and he stoutly maintains that he, and only he, knows the location of the main hull, containing the still-unrecovered part of her treasure, including the gold madonna. The world may never know, however. Shortly after the 1972 find, the Bahamian government, in a dispute with Marx, suspended his salvage permit.

On March 5, 1974 Rick Magers, a lobsterman from Florida, was scouting the Little Bahama Bank from a light plane in a search for new lobster ground (at that time open to commercial fishing by U.S. citizens, but now restricted to native fishermen under Bahamian law).

Magers spotted "this dark object—something standing out." It was a wreck, lying in about 30 feet of water 24 miles southwest of Walker's Cay, the northernmost inhabited island of the Bahamas. Magers later dived on the site, recovering ballast stones and reporting that the hull was loaded with cannon. But he did not have the resources to work the sunken ship. After abortive attempts at financing, he sought help from 54-year-old Robert Abplanalp, inventor-industrialist and owner of Walker's Cay.

Abplanalp agreed to fund the operation. He had his own theory on the location of the Maravillas, and he believed the wreck off Walker's was worth a try. "It's just as easy," he said at the time, "to believe that Bob Marx may have found one of the salvage vessels of the Maravillas and not the mother ship herself."

Walker's Cay became the base of operation for the underwater dig, which began in January 1976, with a six-man team working from the salvage vessel Aventura, commanded by 28-year-old Rick Vaughan. Vaughan was one of the first divers to bring gold to the surface during the successful search for the galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha in the Marquesas off Key West, in 1971. Flagship for the operation was the 105-foot yacht El Toro, the on-site headquarters for Abplanalp, Copeland, visiting archaeologists and a film crew shooting a TV documentary on the quest.

Often the identity of a wrecked vessel—particularly one that went down several hundred years ago—depends upon meshing bits and pieces of information: the knowledge of ships plying given routes within given dates, clues gathered from the recovery of artifacts, and archival material that might indicate the ship's mission, her manifest, armament, passengers and crew. It was toward this goal that Peter Copeland compiled notes and sketches on the wreck off Walker's Cay. The going wasn't easy. The first four months of the dive were marked by leaden skies, occasional high winds and intermittent rain, reducing visibility below the surface. "Except for five working days, we lost the whole month of April," said Frank Sorg Jr., director of the project.

By mid-May the divers had recovered 67 cannons, two anchors, pieces of Majolica dinnerware, ceramic olive jars, ballast stone, iron spikes and ship fittings. The coral-encrusted cannon were removed to Walker's, where 14 of them were stripped of coral, examined for markings and placed in a freshwater bath to leech the salt out. The others were placed in saltwater tanks to keep them from deteriorating. Still, no gold—no madonna. And then, while it seemed less likely as the dive continued that the Walker's wreck was the Maravillas, it seemed proportionately greater that the vessel was an important archaeological find. This was Copeland's opinion; he had probed the lower portion of the ship's hull, still intact.

The divers found evidence that the hull had been mahogany-sheathed as protection against shipworms. The cannon appeared to be of English, Dutch and Swedish origin, all three nations having trafficked in arms with Spain in the late 17th century. Planking and timber structure three feet above the keelson were scorched and burned. With neither gold nor silver found aboard, it was deduced that the vessel may have been salvaged by her own crew, then burned to recover her iron and to keep her from alien hands.

Throughout the summer the findings of the salvage team were reported to Dr. Eugene Lyon, an authority on Latin American history who has studied wrecks from colonial Spain. By assaying available data on the wreck and consulting the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Dr. Lyon finally concluded that the sunken vessel was the frigate San Juan Evangelista, which had been blown inside the reef line of the Little Bahama Bank in November 1714. The Evangelista, with 300 persons aboard, carried a payload of 300,000 pesos in silver. She had been headed for the Spanish garrisons of Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. During a storm the ship lost her rudder and was dismasted. She drifted into the shallows but remained afloat. Only four lives were believed lost. The Spanish removed her treasure and returned the survivors to Havana. Because repairs were excessively expensive in so remote a location, the ship was burned and scuttled in early 1715.

Dr. Lyon has described the recent salvage of the vessel as "a real learning process." He views the recovered artifacts and the data compiled by Copeland as "historically significant, a true archaeological find" because it is unusual to discover a wreck with the lower portion of the hull so well preserved.

For a brief period, Abplanalp considered raising the Evangelista and restoring it as an exhibit for a university or a school of oceanography. He abandoned the idea on the advice of salvors who believed the hull might disintegrate if brought to the surface. Instead, he decided to return the cannon to the wreck, which he now views as an underwater site for skin and scuba divers from Walker's Cay.

Abplanalp and Sorg talk of further exploration. They talk not only of treasure, but of marine archaeology and the large-scale recovery of historical artifacts. There are, after all, thousands of wrecks out there.

Meanwhile, Peter Copeland is happy with the way it turned out. There is no gold madonna in the hulk, but the ship is more or less intact again, the way they found it. It could possibly become a sort of tourist attraction, almost like an underwater park for divers to visit and explore. It has become something of a monument. And that's what makes it an unusual treasure story. Welcome aboard the Evangelista.







Walkers Cay Wreck Site April 7, 1976, after Removal of Approx. 52 iron Cannon.