Dispatches, May 1997
"There could be billions in gold down there," says Glenn Costello, practically chuckling as he thumbs through slides of sparkling silver coins and other booty he says he's taken from shipwrecks off Cuba's northwest coast. If the typically laconic 56-year-old seems a bit too giddy, he certainly has reason: The loot in these photos represents but a fraction of what he thinks he'll recover from three centuries' worth of sunken Spanish ships. Why the confidence? Because Costello, a commercial diver from Vancouver all but unknown in treasure-hunting circles, has no competition for his bounty, having gained exclusive rights to ply Cuba's territorial waters. Costello and his partners will reap 30 percent of any treasure they find, with the Cuban government getting the rest. "Some people call me Castro's treasure hunter, and I guess it's true," says Costello. "The Cubans are hurtin', so we're just trying to help out."
But certainly there's more than altruism at work here, given that he's after what could be the largest sunken trove ever discovered. Whatever his motive, this month Costello begins his third season scouring the Caribbean. Using centuries-old ship logs and records from Spanish archives, he says he's found 23 ships to date — though only one containing any lucre — and thinks he may now know where four gold- and silver-laden galleons sank nearly 400 years ago. "It could be any day," he says.
Interestingly, few in-the-know observers doubt his claims, though that doesn't mean that they're happy about it. A vocal roster of critics — most notably archaeologists, Cold Warriors, and Cuban exiles — is crying foul. "It's yet another instance of foreigners raping the national patrimony of Cuba," complains Josë Cžrdenas, spokesman for the Cuban American National Foundation. "Those wrecks belong to the people, but they have no say in how the treasure will be divvied up." Senator Jesse Helms, busy spearheading measures to bring on an even tighter U.S. embargo, isn't pleased, either. "Anything in Castro's pocket," says Helms spokesman Marc Thiessen, "is profiteering off the suffering of the Cuban people."
To archaeologists, of course, the mere notion of treasure hunting is blasphemy. Until now, Cuba's waters have been all but untouched, Castro defending the wrecks from the sort of plunder common in the region. "There could well be a fortune down there," says Kevin Crisman, a marine archaeologist at Texas A&M. "But treasure hunting is like doing brain surgery with a chainsaw. No matter how careful they say they are, we'll never get the full picture after they're done."
Costello — a slow-moving, slow-talking Paul-Bunyan-with-a-regulator, described by one former employer as "a friendly giant" and "one of the best salvage divers around" — dismisses such criticism. He claims that a light touch, $500,000 of computerized imaging equipment, and a Cuban government archaeologist on board ensure that wrecks will be properly preserved.
"We're only after the gold," Costello says, apparently not concerned that his words seem to prove his detractors' point. "The archaeologists can have the rest."