Hunting for Cuba's hidden treasure
By Malcolm Billings
There is a 16th Century fort at the entrance to Havana harbour that is
packed with treasure from wrecked galleons. It is Havana's
newest museum, opened this year.
The display cases are full of wonderful things: Exquisite jewellery made
from emeralds and gold; an intricate gold chain that could have
been made for a Spanish princess; stacks of gold and silver bullion and personal items such as rings, plates and pewter mugs that must
have belonged to the crew of unfortunate vessels.
There is a concentration of wrecks around the coast of Cuba - estimates
vary but there are hundreds, if not thousands - because the
harbour at Havana was the gathering place for the Spanish silver fleets.
The galleons laden with treasure from Mexico and other Spanish possessions
assembled once a year and then sailed back to Spain
in armed convoy.
The curator of the maritime museum believes that some of the jewellery came from the Philippines - Spain's colony in the Far East.
Mexican gold and gem stones were sent all the way to Manila to be made into high class jewellery.
Then the products would come back to the Pacific coast of Central America,
overland through Mexico or across the Isthmus of
Panama and on to Havana.
Finding and excavating the wrecks in shallow water has been going on for
years, but the real goodies, according to Paulina Zelitsky, lie
undisturbed on the sea bed at the depth of about half a mile.
Paulina, who once worked as an off-shore engineer at a Russian submarine
base in Cuba, is now president of a Canadian company,
Advanced Digital Communications, which has the exploration contract.
''We locate objects on the sea bed with a side-scan sonar device which we tow along behind our salvage ship,'' she explained.
"When something shows up on the screen we send down a remotely operated
underwater vehicle to investigate. This has cameras
and lights and the pictures are relayed to the deck of the research vessel."
The wrecks show up quite well because at that depth they are not encrusted
with coral. Ships' planking survives and there are always
ballast stones along with a lot of pottery.
Somewhere among all that they can be sure of coins, gold and silver bullion and objects made of metal of various kinds.
One of the wrecks they have identified could be a jackpot of a cargo.
They have been looking for a special ship. It is one of the earliest wrecks
dating from the beginning of Spanish colonisation and
disappeared with a huge cargo of gold and silver along with gems and cultural objects specially collected to show the king of Spain
the extent of the wealth of the New World.
Their existing equipment has identified the site but the salvage team is
waiting for new equipment now being designed to work on the
sea bed for months at a time.
Paulina described it as looking like a giant scorpion that clanks its way
around the sea bed and is able to negotiate outcrops of rock
and gullies using its six legs and a set of wheels.
Like a scorpion, this new vehicle will have a long tail or arm that can
lift and dig. And it will be a more precise operation. All its
functions will be controlled by someone in a miniature submarine who can see exactly what's going on.
Millions of pounds have been invested in this deep sea project, and as yet nothing has been raised.
Is it all worth it I wondered? Are there enough wrecks with treasure that is recoverable to make it worthwhile?
Paulina produced some stunning statistics. Although the new museum has
cases full of treasure Paulina believes that only about 2%
of everything that was lost has been recorded so far.
That means, she said, there could be an absolute fortune down there: gold
and silver worth thousands of millions of pounds lying on
the bottom of the Caribbean.