Castro Forms a New Alliance -- With Treasure Hunters
HAVANA-- Little boys and aging adventurers dream about hauling up treasure
swallowed centuries ago by the sea. But Paul Frustaglio, president of Visa
Explorations, has learned first hand that spotting a loose diamond in a patch of snow-white sand is not easy.
Frustaglio's Toronto-based company has discovered a rich cargo of gemstones,
goblets, pistols and an assortment of other items spilled from the hull
of a Spanish
ship that wrecked off northern Cuba in 1839. The haul is the biggest to date in these wreck-rich waters, which Cuba's Communist government has begun searching in
earnest for the windfall they may hold.
Already more than 6,500 artifacts have been fished from clear, shallow
waters off the Cuban province of Villa Clara -- from dominoes to diamonds,
billiard balls to
bracelets. Jars of facial cream and corked perfume bottles still hold their original contents.
"Treasure hunting may sound sexy, but it's frowned upon," said Frustaglio,
a 37-year-old former land developer. "I'd rather be thought of as someone
The project is one of Cuban government's more romantic joint ventures,
which usually tend toward tractor making and telecommunications. And although
it is not likely to be one of its most profitable, there has been no shortage of foreign partners lining up for a shot at discovery.
Visa Gold is one of four foreign firms given exploration rights in Cuban
waters, parceled out like oil concessions. So far, it is the only one to
come across sunken
treasure, plying its three shallow-water concessions off Cuba's north coast, where shoals and reefs scuttled countless ships when sailors navigated with compass,
sextant and chart.
In October, another Canadian company working with Cuban scientists discovered
what they believe to be the remains of the USS Maine. But the battleship,
mysterious explosion in Havana Harbor in 1898 sparked the Spanish-American war, promises to be richer in history than treasure.
Frustaglio made it clear that, while he has an abiding interest in history,
his goal is to make money. Visa Gold is a public company traded on the
Exchange, so the $1 million he has invested so far must be explained to shareholders and would-be investors.
There is reason for Frustaglio and his 14 full-time crew members to
be optimistic that a fortune is lying on Cuba's seldom-seen coral reefs.
In 1971, another treasure
seeker, Mel Fisher, discovered a single silver coin from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish ship that sank off the Florida Keys in 1622 less than 100 miles
from the Cuban coast. His company, which finally located the wreck in 1985, is still hauling up treasure, which to date has been valued at up to $500 million.
"There is only one Atocha," Frustaglio said in an interview at his company's
office here at the Hemingway Marina. "But these waters are full of shipwrecks,
everybody knows it. And there are still pirates around here. Fortunately, you don't see many boats on Cuban waters."
There are also potential pitfalls that did not exist when Fisher struck
gold. In July, the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled
that Spain owns the
wrecks of two Spanish warships discovered off Virginia. The decision may present problems for salvage companies if the case becomes a precedent.
"The way Cuba looks at it is that these are their ships," Frustaglio
said. "They are part of Cuban history, and Fidel [Castro] has kept his
waters pretty closed up. I
don't think he's going to start opening them now. I'm not saying it couldn't be an issue in the future, but as of now I haven't heard a thing from Spain."
The search began in Seville, Spain, where national archives hold the
ship logs and manifests from centuries-old trading expeditions. Frustaglio,
who spent almost two
years gauging the feasibility of treasure hunting before starting the business, employs a researcher in Seville to locate likely prospects.
About 18 months ago, the researcher came across the tale of the Palemon,
a roughly 100-foot Spanish brigantine that left Le Havre, France, for Havana
11, 1839. According to its manifest, the cargo included fabrics, clothing, perfume and jewelry, among other items. It never arrived, and a review of the captain's log
offered a fairly precise description of where it went down at 3:30 a.m. April 25, 1839.
With that information, Frustaglio and his team of Canadians and Cubans
decided to begin scanning the sea floor around a small key three hours
by boat from the port
of La Isabela.
The crew looks for anomalies with a magnetometer, a powerful metal detector
with a range that reaches eight feet below the sandy sea bottom. Cannons
usually produce a strong enough signal to prompt an exploration dive. That is what happened in May. Divers, including Cubans familiar with the highly restricted
waters, quickly found a telltale pile of the type of stones that served as ballast for trading ships. The next step was to submit a feasibility study to the Cuban Ministry
of Patrimony, which granted permission to excavate in July.
The initial investment is up to Visa Gold. Half of any proceeds go to
the Ministry of Patrimony. Out of the balance, Visa Gold pays its expenses
and keeps 60
percent of what is left. The rest goes to the company's state-owned Cuban partner, Geomar S.A.
The Palemon is scattered over an area the size of a football field but
in water less than 12 feet deep. So far, divers have brought up crystal
decanters, billiard balls,
gold rings, bracelets, loose diamonds, perfume bottles, ivory dominoes and letter openers. The booty will be appraised and sold at auction or exhibited in museums.
-- Scott Wilson