November 13, 2001

Divers searching Columbus' wreck

                 NOMBRE DE DIOS, Panama (Reuters) -- Half-starved and adrift in a leaking
                 boat, did Christopher Columbus eat a last meal of foraged turtle and
                 coconuts before cutting his losses and heading for home?

                 If divers salvaging the wreck of an early 16th -Century galleon lying off Panama's
                 Caribbean coast are right in their hunch, a slew of details about the Genoese
                 explorer's fourth and final voyage of discovery could soon surface.

                 Researchers believe a growing haul of coral-encrusted canons, pottery shards and
                 food remains salvaged from the wreck in shallow waters off Panama's Colon
                 province all point to the likelihood it is Columbus' ship La Vizcaina.

                 The twin-masted vessel, weighing about 100 tons, was among four early caravels
                 that sailed Panama's Atlantic coast in 1503 in a failed bid to found a colony at the
                 mouth of the jungle-fringed Belen river.

                 Routed by hostile Indian tribes and with one vessel sunk, Columbus and his
                 150-man crew set sail once more, brought low by fevers, rotten food and the poor
                 state of their worm-infested ships.

                 As the ragtag and starving flotilla prepared for a desperate return voyage to Spain,
                 the Vizcaina began to leak heavily. Stripped of valuable rigging for the long journey
                 home, Columbus ordered it sunk.

                 "All the artifacts that we have recovered date the wreck to the early 1500s," Carlos
                 Fitzgerald, National Culture Institute heritage director, told Reuters. "There is strong
                 circumstantial evidence to suggest it is the Vizcaina."

                 Partly hidden by a rising curl of air bubbles, salvage diver Warren White ties a thick
                 shank of rope round the coral-gnarled canon -- lying in 20 feet of water -- and
                 gestures to the winch crew to start hauling.

                 Divers identify a swivel-mounted Lombards cannon lying on the salvage vessel's
                 deck. Researchers say the unreliable, early breach loading weapons were used to
                 arm Columbus' expeditions, and they help date the find.

                 "These things just blew out. They did more damage to the crew than the enemy
                 did," said White, a Florida-based salvage diver who discovered the wreck in 1997
                 while snorkeling.

                 "The Spanish stopped using them after 1520."

                 Timbers raised from the hull also tell a tale. Hammered together using wooden pegs
                 common to shipbuilders in the 1400s, the planks were not sealed in a protective
                 lead sheet in line with early 16th-Century Spanish directives.

                 "An order came from Seville in 1508 to line ships with lead to protect the hull from
                 worms," said White, a diver with more than four decades experience.

                 "There was no lead on this boat."

                 A haul of pottery shards, identified as shattered amphorae commonly used by
                 Renaissance navigators to ship olive oil to the New World, have also been retrieved
                 from the wreck, adding to growing timeline evidence.

                 Found resting on a bed of white sand a few yards from the palm-fringed beach, the
                 vessel had its anchors set ready to sail and had been stripped of mast bands, rigging
                 blocks and the crews' possessions.

                 "It's a ship that's been abandoned," said Nilda Vasquez, the cultural institute's
                 underwater operations co-ordinator and a veteran wreck diver.

                 "There was no rigging, no personal belongings, just the artillery left on board."

                 Found several miles east of the spot where the Vizcaina was recorded as having
                 been sunk, the wreck could also be that of a ship of Conquistador Francisco
                 Pizarro, the National Cultural Institut e said.

                 While divers continue to search for a signature nameplate, ship's bell or coin
                 traditionally left by builders beneath the topmast to identify the wreck, food remains
                 found at the site tell a tale of hunger.

                 Aged turtle bones, scallops and coconut shells found among coral flecked detritus
                 in the ship's hold indicate that the crew had exhausted food supplies and resorted to

                 "Columbus said the crew was starving and that the ship was in bad shape.
                 Everything that we have found backs that up," White said, dripping water on the
                 salvage boat's deck.

                 "These guys were foraging for food."

                 The recovered turtle bones and coconuts have been sent to a laboratory for radio
                 carbon dating.

                 Salvaged canons and timbers, have been placed in saltwater storage tanks at a
                 laboratory in nearby Portobelo, while researchers prepare to clear them of crusted
                 coral for closer identification.

                 Meanwhile, salvagers working with cultural institute archeologists and commercial
                 backers Conquest Panama Inc. and Investigaciones Marinas del Istmo S.A., feel
                 circumstantial evidence points to the ship belonging to Columbus, who left the New
                 World in 1504 and died two years later in Spain.

                 "If I were an investigating magistrate," White said with a wry grin, "I would say
                 there was enough circumstantial evidence to charge Christopher Columbus with

                    Copyright 2001 Reuters.