Bounty of the Deep

A waterlogged look at the world's wealthiest shipwrecks

Outside

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Recovering lost shipwrecks has proven quite lucrative. Last May, gold coins salvaged from the California steamer Brother Jonathan were auctioned off by Bowers and Merena Inc. for $5.5 million. And over the last ten years, the paddlewheeler S.S. Central America, which sank in 1857 off the U.S.'s Atlantic coast, may have netted its finders more than $100 million. Now, however, the pressure is mounting on divers searching for new wrecks. Next month in Paris, a UNESCO delegation, responding to the long-standing battle between underwater archaeologists and sunken-treasure hunters, could ratify an international convention that will declare shipwrecks more than 50 years old off limits to commercial salvors and sport divers. Herewith, the short list of the unplucked plums.

WRECK
THE LOST SHIPS OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS

SUNK
Off the coasts of Haiti, Panama, and Jamaica

DATE
1492-1504

WHAT WENT WRONG?

Columbus lost four ships to hurricanes, four others to shipworm damage, and one to grounding on his four voyages to the New World. Most are believed to be buried in sediment and sand in very shallow water.

WORTH
Unique historical and archaeological value.

WHO'S SEARCHING?

Currently, no one. Interest faded following the 500-year anniversary of Columbus's first voyage.


WRECK

NUESTRA SEÑORA DE LA CONCEPCIÓN

SUNK
Bahamas

DATE
1563

WHAT WENT WRONG?

The 450-ton Concepción was the flagship of a fleet carrying gold, silver, and other New World treasures back to Spain when it was lost in a storm.

WORTH
Some 25 tons of gold and silver, plus precious stones valued at $100 million.

WHO'S SEARCHING?

Minneapolis-based Treasure Ventures Inc., a newly formed group of investors and entrepreneurs.


WRECK
LOST SHIPS OF THE ARMADA DE TIERRA FIRME AND THE TIERRA FIRME FLOATA

SUNK
Florida Keys

DATE
1622

WHAT WENT WRONG?
Six ships were lost in a hurricane after leaving Havana. To date, three of the six, including the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, have been found. The Atocha alone has yielded some 47 tons of gold, silver, and emeralds valued at $400 million.

WORTH
Depends on the ship; at least one may contain $200 million in treasure.

WHO'S SEARCHING?
The company formed by late king o' slick salvagers Mel Fisher.


WRECK
THE SAN JOSÉ

SUNK
Off the coast of Cartageña, Colombia

DATE

1708

WHAT WENT WRONG?
The richest Spanish ship lost in the Western Hemisphere, the San José exploded during a battle with English warships. Only five of her 600-member crew survived.

WORTH
Thought to contain 11 million gold pesos and two tons of platinum. (Present value: $1 billion.)

WHO'S SEARCHING?

Numerous companies have negotiated unsuccessfully with the Colombian government for the rights to search for and salvage the wreck.



WRECK
REPUBLIC

SUNK

Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington state

DATE
1870

WHAT WENT WRONG?
Republic was carrying California gold miners to San Francisco when it collided with another ship. Only two of the estimated 275 passengers survived.

WORTH

Bullion worth at least $30 million.

WHO'S SEARCHING?
Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration.

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