I lived aboard my sailboat for several years and spent some of those years sailing in the Caribbean and along the coast Central America.
The Treasure Will Have to Wait
For the First Part of the Story See Bahamas Treasure Story
At about thirty feet under the surface of the Caribbean sea, and through a partially fogged scuba mask, I could still recognize the gleam in Chris's eyes. That gleam meant one thing, treasure fever! The silver coin that he was holding bore the faded imprint of a Spanish cross. Back when I decided to sell my home and move aboard a small sailboat and sail to the Caribbean, in no part of my wildest dreams did I ever think that one day I'd actually play a part in finding sunken Spanish treasure. Yet here I was, in full scuba gear and hovering just off the bottom of the ocean, next to a Spanish treasure ship that had been submerged for nearly four hundred years. Also, I was right next to a guy who had just found an extremely valuable coin that he was holding in his hand. Where there was one piece of treasure, surely there had to be more.
My friend Chris didn't say much on our boat ride back to Marsh Harbour. I figured that he was probably working on a plan to stake a formal claim to the treasure. This plan would involve several steps, each of which had to be carefully executed so as not to tip off others about his new find. One of the steps would be to provide the authorities in Nassau with clear evidence of a significant new treasure find. That required finding more items of treasure which could be offered up and examined by the authorities for age and authenticity before any treasure hunting permits were be issued.
Chris swore me to secrecy, then told me the reality of his current situation. Hurricane Floyd had mostly destroyed the boat dock in front of his home, which was a big source of his income. Now that he wouldn't be earning any new revenue from dock fees, which he charged visiting boats, he'd have to depend solely on fishing for income. The hurricane had also ruined fishing prospects in the area, so his side job of salvaging sunken boats would now have to pay all the bills. Chris had to accept the jobs that were coming his way from the insurance companies, then search for treasure later after he'd made enough income to take care of his family.
Another Kind of Treasure Diving
Chris decided to go ahead and agree to do some salvage work for a couple of boat insurance companies, whose clients vessels had sunk to the bottom of the anchorage in Marsh Harbour, Abaco. As promised, he had plenty of work for me as a diver and we soon got underway with raising some of the wrecks that were littering the seafloor in the harbor.
Finding Other Treasure
One of the first boats that we raised from the bottom of the harbor belonged to some sailing friends of mine who were from Florida. The older retired couple, as it turned out, did have boat insurance, yet the policy wasn't going to pay enough to replace their floating home.
As I settled on down to the bottom of the harbor in the crystal clear water I cleared my scuba mask, took a deep breath of surface supplied air, and surveyed the scene all around me. I'd once been a guest of the couple onboard the same sailboat and had even eaten dinner on the beautiful sloop. It was a very surreal feeling to see something that once seemed to hold so much promise of travel and adventure just sitting there on the bottom, being slowly reclaimed by the sea, as tropical fish darted in and out of a hole in its hull.
Another boat that we raised was a 45' Hatteras fishing yacht, fully outfitted with a tall fly bridge for spotting marlin, and loaded with tons of expensive fishing gear. Since it had been nearly two weeks since hurricane Floyd had sunk the boats, most of the items that were still left onboard had been severely damaged from the effects of corrosive salt water. Electronic items, such as the boat's $10,000 radar system, were now just useless pieces trash which we'd have to dispose of.
A few things survived however, such as some of the nice brass and stainless steel fishing reels and expensive carbon fiber rods that remained onboard in locked compartments. The terms Chris's contract with the insurance companies were such that he was allowed to keep any items that we found onboard, provided they'd not been requested for retrieval by the vessel's owners.
Chris was being paid only about $60 per foot of each boat's hull length for what was often a multi-day process to raise them from the bottom, patch their hulls and finally dispose of them at a marine salvage yard in Nassau, many miles away. Considering all of the time and labor that were involved, any "bonuses" that Chris found along the way could mean the difference between losing money and turning a profit. Fortunately, from the Hatteras fishing boat that we raised, named the "My Wave", Chris was able to salvage several hundred dollars worth of fishing gear which he could later sell for a profit. Also, he was able to salvage the boat's large diesel engine, which was worth nearly $5,000 when dried out and "pickled" with diesel oil to preserve it from any further damage before he could sell it to a marine salvage dealer in Miami.
I Get to Take Home Some Treasure
Fortunately for me, my boss didn't care much about many of the smaller items that we found aboard, such as fishing lures, anchors or wet suits. "Just take 'em, I've got bigger fish to fry", Chris said. We went on to raise more than a dozen boats from the bottom of the harbor. As a result of my daily employee "bonuses" my small sailboat, now parked alongside what was left of Chris's pier, began rest a few inches lower in the water with the added weight. Later on, as I sailed away from the Bahamas and on down to Central America, the items that Chris had let me take home during my work there in Marsh Harbour were very useful for bartering and for selling outright to help fund the rest of my voyage
The Dreaded Dredging Ship
We had only a couple more boats to raise for the insurance companies before getting back to explore the Spanish wreck and hopefully recover enough evidence from it for my friend to stake an official claim to any treasure that it might contain. Unfortunately, before we could get back to the wreck site, an unforeseeable disaster struck.
At the end of our workday, Chris told the rest of the workers that he and I were going to head just up the coast from Marsh Harbour to do a little fishing. In reality, he wanted to do a reconnaissance mission and see if there was any activity happening near his new treasure find. Not far from where we'd found the Spanish wreck there happened to be a small cay on which a popular resort was located. The resort catered to visiting American yachts and the storm surge from hurricane Floyd had forced a large quantity of sand into the main channel of their harbor, blocking the expensive yachts that frequented the cay from entering or exiting.
On the horizon, only about a mile away from our discovery, sat a long barge which featured a dredging apparatus protruding from its bow, along with what looked like several large pumps onboard. They were already dredging the bottom of the seafloor and relocating what had to be a massive amount of sand which was being sprayed from a large nozzle on the stern. Around us the water was already turning murky from sand and mud that was being discharged from the dredging operation.
I knew from the look on Chris's face that he wasn't happy, but what could he do? If he tipped his hand now, without enough evidence to back it up, his claim to the wreck could be denied. Also, anyone else, including the dredging company, could come along and make a claim after uncovering more treasure.
The Cover Up
The following day we worked to raise a sunken 35' fishing boat which had become submerged after being tossed up onto a piling, which was still impaling the boat's bow section even as it sat on the bottom of the ocean. Before we could raise this boat, we had to cut away the heavy creosote piling at its base underwater. Only if you've ever operated a 36" hand saw underwater while breathing from scuba equipment for several hours, can you fully appreciate how hard of a task this might be. At the end of the day Chris, myself and my two co-workers had managed to do this, as well as to float the big fishing boat to surface after applying a temporary plywood patch to the hole and pumping all of the water out with large pumps. We left a temporary electric bilge pump onboard to remove any water that leaked past our patch, then left the big fishing boat tied to the dock as we exhaustively made our way home as darkness fell across the harbor.
Early the next morning, just as the sun was coming up, Chris tapped on the side of my boat, which was moored alongside the remains of his pier. "We need to go check those crab traps up island before work starts, OK?", I heard him say.
As the sun was just beginning to rise over Marsh Harbour, Chris's boat skittered over the waves as we traveled up the shore about a half-hour's ride to where he'd found the Spanish wreck just a couple weeks before. As we got closer to the spot, Chris was visibly crestfallen as he saw that the dredging barge was no more than half a mile from our treasure hunting site.
Behind the barge was a nearly mile long swath of newly dredged channel, deep and blue in color when compared to the surrounding shallow ocean. On both sides of the newly dredged channel there was a long line of mounded up sand, forming a new reef which almost broke the surface of the water. The mound of sand looked to be more than a hundred yards wide and must have been at least thirty feet deep in places.
Chris turned to me, looking totally defeated, and said, "by tomorrow they'll have our spot totally covered up."
The next day after work we made our way once more up the coast from Marsh Harbour to the site of the sunken ship. Chris wasn't in a good mood, and barely spoke as we skimmed over the waves in his fast power boat. The sand dredging barge was even closer this time, no more than a couple hundred feet from the wreck site.
This time the water was too murky so see any features on the bottom and Chris had to navigate to the exact spot using his GPS. As the arrow on the screen indicated we were right on top of the wreck, we noticed that the boat's depth finder no longer read 30 feet, but instead showed only 10 feet of water depth. The dredging boat had covered the wreck site with more than 20 feet of sand, making any treasure recovery operation impossible without hiring expensive equipment, not to mention all of the required permits.
The Wreck is Still There
Before sailing out of Marsh Harbor in the Bahamas and on to the Dominican Republic and beyond, I worked for a few more weeks, helping to raise several more sunken wrecks from the bottom of the harbor. The only wreck that I really cared about though was now completely covered over with several meters of sand, compliments of the dredging barge.
As I later learned, many of the early day shipwrecks in the Bahamas were not in fact treasure ships at all, just as not all wrecked vehicles are armored cars. Sure, some of these ships did carry some coins and bullion, but only in smaller amounts which were used to pay the crew or to purchase goods with. The real treasure ships, such as the Spanish ship Atocha, found by Mel Fisher in the Florida Keys, were actually far and few between. Most likely the wreck that my friend Chris had found was one of those lesser merchant vessels, or perhaps not.
The fact that other silver coins had been found on a beach nearby may have been an indication that it did hold a large quantity of Spanish silver and gold.
Spanish authorities over the years have reported an official number of 681 ships that were reported lost in the Americas. To date, only 23% of those 681 ships have been explored thus far for archeological purposes. Most of them still remain undiscovered to this day.
The Spanish ship that my friend found that day still lies on the bottom under a pile of sand, just a few miles from Marsh Harbour Island in the Bahamas. Since leaving the Bahamas all those years ago I learned that my friend Chris had sadly passed away in a diving accident. Whether he shared the story of the Spanish wreck with anyone else, I'll never know. Perhaps someone out there owns his old GPS unit, with the wreck's coordinates still programmed into it, although I doubt that he'd have labeled them "Treasure Spot".
An even larger and more devastating hurricane, named Dorian, hit Marsh Harbour on October 3, 2020. The island is still recovering from the terrible storm and many lifelong residents have been forced to permanently relocate to other islands. Perhaps that same storm washed away the sand that was covering the wreck and it's now lying there on the bottom exposed, ready to be found yet again.
I hope that you've enjoyed reading this true treasure story. I'll provide an update if any news comes of a Spanish treasure ship being discovered near Marsh Harbour, Abaco in the Bahamas.
MG Singh emge from Singapore on March 20, 2021:
The second part as interesting as the first. Riveting attention.
Misbah from The Planet Earth on March 20, 2021:
I have read both parts and the adventure is Super awesome.
I feel sorry for your friend
Very engaging from the starting to the end of part 2
Thanks for sharing your experience
Nolen Hart (author) from Southwest on March 20, 2021:
Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed the story. I have definitely thought of going back to search, however the difficulty of obtaining the necessary permits as the environmental implications of dredging the area are a big impediment. Rules are a bit tighter now across much of the Caribbean for that type of endeavor.
Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on March 19, 2021:
What a fascinating story. Back in the late 70s and 80s I followed Mel Fisher’s search for the Atocha. Years later we visited his Museum in Key West. I always found his story an amazing tale of perseverance and personal loss. Your story is pretty amazing also. Have you ever thought about going back and searching for the wreck?
Liz Westwood from UK on March 19, 2021:
This is an excellent account of your adventures. It keeps the reader hooked until the end. Such a shame that the treasure got reburied. Part 1 is top quality too. I am only sorry that I am unable to find a way to comment on that one too.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 18, 2021:
Aha! After reading your first account, I knew that there must be more to this story. I am sorry your friend died before knowing the truth about that sunken ship.