Pearls of the Santa Margarita

May 22, 2008 by Joseph Vangieri

I don’t know about you, but I get a thrilling sensation whenever I hold gold bars, silver “pieces-of-eight” or other treasures excavated from an historic shipwreck.

History, human tragedy, and disaster at sea all there in the palm of your hand makes sunken treasure really special to people of all ages all over the world.  There is nothing more exciting than the search for a Spanish galleon filled with sunken treasure and stories full of drama and adventure on the high seas. The story of finding the Santa Margarita with a well over $150 million treasure on the ocean floor is the stuff dreams are made of.

Blue Water Ventures Key West,a state of the art salvage company, has rejuvenated the search for a King’s ransom in gold and silver on the Santa Margarita. This is the ghost galleon of the Tierra Firme treasure fleet lost in 1622 with the Nuestra Señora de Atocha off the Marquesas Keys, some 40 miles west of Key West, Florida.

This new company has been using the latest technology combined with a very experienced dive crew to find the lost “mother lode” that has eluded divers ever since the Margarita was first discovered by Mel Fisher in 1980. Mel Fisher’s long quest and eventual discovery in 1985 of the Atocha’s $400 million “Mother lode” was heralded around the world as one of the greatest shipwreck treasure discoveries of all time.  Now  the salvage company is in its third year of making an all out high-tech effort to locate the main treasure on the Margarita site, which has gone undetected since the wreck was first discovered over 27 years ago. Work on the Margarita site is being conducted under the direction of the President and CEO Keith Webb and his partner, Dr. R. Duncan Mathewson III, a best selling author of “Treasure of the Atocha.”

From the start, focus has been centered on finding the scattered trail of artifacts leading to the “Mother lode”. “Finding isolated artifacts is one thing, but the recent discovery of a rare coin clump along with ballast rock, barrel hoops, spikes and other shipwreck material leads us to believe we are closing in on the trail to the heavy treasure cargo,” says Keith Webb, who hails from Jacksonville, Florida.

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Leading the research effort to locate and document the undersea treasures of the Santa Margarita are Duncan Mathewson, who is directing the archaeological program, and Dr. Eugene Lyon, who is compiling and translating new historical documentation about what was on board the vessel when she sank and what treasure is still left to be found.  Both Mathewson and Lyon were instrumental in helping Mel Fisher to find the Atocha’s “Mother lode” while documenting the archaeology and history of the lost 1622 fleet since the early 1970’s.

 This project is more than just a treasure hunt. All project staff are fully aware that to be successful on the Margarita site, they must first focus their efforts on underwater detective work in the search for archaeological clues and scientific information that will help solve the giant jig-saw puzzle of how the galleon broke up and came to be in her final resting place. Above all else, it must be determined where the main lower hull structure and its heavy treasure cargo areis.  It is likely that the main part of the shipwreck is stabilized somewhere beneath a sand dune in about 25’-30’ water in an unexplored area not far from the impact zone where the galleon first grounded.
How much treasure is left? – is always a question everyone is interested in. whenever a Spanish galleon is first located.  This is certainly the case with the Santa Margarita which sank along side the Atocha in 1622 – 40 miles off of Key West.

By knowing how much treasure cargo was listed on the Santa Margarita manifest, the salvage team is now tracking the artifact scatter patterns on the site, and knows what official cargo was on board when she sank. The company also knows from the salvage accounts how much treasure was salvaged by the Spaniards from 1622 to 1642 when they conducted salvage on the Santa Margarita site. By adding what was recovered back then and what treasure has been retrieved since the site was first discovered by Mel Fisher in 1980, a good guesstimate about how much is left has been made by Dr. Lyon, in conjunction with his work on the Atocha documents.  Dr. Lyon has calculated that there are still major artifact discoveries, to be made on the Santa Margarita site, including over 80,000 eight and four reales (pieces -off- eight), 169 silver ingots weighing about 70 pounds each, 22 copper ingots, at least four extremely rare bronze guns and an unrecorded amount of gold bullion in many forms, along with hundreds of unique personal gold and silver artifacts never seen before in museums around the world.

The big question deals with the quantity of gold undiscovered on the site. The Spaniards never did record the recovery of any gold treasure from their many years of salvage back in the 17th century. The 34 gold bars, bits and discs manifested on the Santa Margarita has already been far exceeded with over 75 gold pieces weighing over 140 pounds recovered since 1980. This galleon may have carried far more gold proportionately than silver as compared to the Atocha cargo consisting of about 7,175 ounces of gold in bars and discs and 1,038 silver ingots weighing over 36 tons.

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The intriguing question is how much contraband gold was on the Santa Margarita when she went down. We know from Dr. Lyon’s research that while shippers carefully registered their cargoes, smugglers did not – with some 19% of precious cargo usually secreted somewhere on board Spanish galleons. There is no way of knowing just how many gold bars, bits and discs are still on the site.

Gold chains also present a mystery. While two pieces of gold chain appear on Atocha’s manifest, none appears on Santa Margarita’s manifest although over 50 gold chains have been recovered. Some of these chains measured over 8 feet in length and weighed more than 7 pounds. It is very likely that many of the Santa Margarita’s gold chains haved originated from China and the Far East having reached the west coast of the Americas – through the Pacific trade route of the Manila galleon to Acapulco, having been transported on mules overland from Acapulco to Vera Cruz where they were loaded on to New Spain ships sailing to Havana, where they were finally loaded on the Santa Margarita bound for Spain.

Gold coins have also been found in large quantities on the Santa Margarita site without being listed on the manifest. Sixty gold coins have been recovered from the site. All these gold coins were minted in Spain, as gold coins were not yet minted in the New World in 1622. The gold coins are most probably “pocket change” and possessions of the wealthy passengers who were accommodated on board in the “First Class” cabins of the stern castle.

The most exciting find so far is a lead box containing well over 16,000 pearls.  Historically, they are known to have come from Indian pearl divers off the Isle of Margarita off the Venezuelan coast.  The Gemological Institute of America haves analyzed the pearls and believe they are the most unique collection anywhere in the world.  Much more study need
s to be done before their value can be determined.