Monday May 14 11:59 AM ET
Explorers Comb Cuban Seas for Treasure, Mysteries
By Andrew Cawthorne
HAVANA (Reuters) - Barely touched since the colonial era of piracy and shipwrecks, sea bottoms around Cuba are an underwater fantasy world promising treasure-laden sunken ships, insights into times gone by -- and maybe even a lost city.
Once a hub for shipments of gold, silver and other plunder from New World to Old, the Caribbean island's waters likely hide billions of dollars' worth of treasure from hundreds of ships that sank after encountering reefs, storms or pirates.
But that is not all that tempts foreign companies, which, in a joint venture with President Fidel Castro (news - web sites)'s government, are beginning an unprecedented, systematic search of one of the world's most-fascinating, least-explored undersea regions.
As well as gold-laden Spanish galleons, important secrets and insights into regional history, global environment trends, ancient geography and marine science also lurk in the depths.
``It's a new frontier,'' enthused Soviet-born Canadian ocean engineer Paulina Zelitsky, from British Columbia-based Advanced Digital Communications, poring over video images of hitherto unseen seafloor taken by underwater robots.
``We are the first people ever to see the bottom of Cuban waters over 50 meters. ... It's so exciting. We are discovering the influence of currents on global climate, volcanoes, the history of formation of Caribbean islands, numerous historic wrecks and even possibly a sunken city built in the pre-classic period and populated by an advanced civilization similar to the early Teotihuacan culture of Yucatan,'' she said.
ADC, the heavyweight among four foreign exploration firms here, was testing its deep-water equipment off Havana Bay late last year when its ship, ``Ulises,'' found the century-old wreck of a U.S. battleship, The Maine, while surveying the seabed.
The ship blew up mysteriously in 1898, killing 260 American sailors and touching off the Spanish-American War.
ADC has also been exploring a string of underwater volcanoes about 5,000 feet deep off Cuba's western tip, where millions of years ago a strip of land once joined the island to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.
LOST CITY OFF WESTERN CUBA?
Most intriguingly, researchers using sonar equipment have discovered, at a depth of about 2,200 feet, a huge land plateau with clear images of what appears to be urban development partly covered by sand. From above, the shapes resemble pyramids, roads and buildings.
ADC is excited but reluctant to speculate until a joint investigation with the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the U.S. National Geographic (news - web sites) Society takes place early this summer.
``It is stunning. What we see in our high-resolution sonar images are limitless, rolling, white sand plains and, in the middle of this beautiful white sand, there are clear manmade large-size architectural designs. It looks like when you fly over an urban development in a plane and you see highways, tunnels and buildings,'' Zelitsky said.
``We don't know what it is and we don't have the videotaped evidence of this yet, but we do not believe that nature is capable of producing planned symmetrical architecture, unless it is a miracle,'' she added in an interview at her office at Tarara, along the coast east of Havana.
ADC's deep-water equipment includes a satellite-integrated ocean bottom positioning system, high-precision side-scan double-frequency sonar, and remotely operated submarine robots. They plan to add two submersibles to take people down.
On the treasure trail, it has already located some 700 target sites where historic wrecks are thought to lie and it recently videotaped and identified three of them as large, 17th century ships with valuable cargo.
Bringing up treasure will finance the project. But Zelitsky said, ``Our agenda is much broader. We are very anxious about global environmental changes. Archeology is providing us with the means to conduct broader scientific ocean exploration.''
The other three foreign companies -- one Canadian, one French and one South African -- operate in shallower waters than ADC. Under contracts with Cuban state partner Geomar, all the firms have concessions to explore in different swathes of sea and would share profits with the government.
U.S. COMPANIES BARRED BY EMBARGO
American companies are prohibited from participating by the long-running U.S. embargo on the Communist-run island.
The rush of interest in Cuba's seas is due in part to the Castro government's recognition that it does not have the money or technology to carry out systematic exploration by itself, though it does have excellent divers.
``As you know, we have financing problems. This is a very expensive activity. They give us technology and financing. We provide historical and ocean expertise,'' Eddy Fernandez, vice president of Geomar, said.
``These projects are very important in helping us rescue things from history, which contribute to our national patrimony,'' he added at a ceremony launching a mini-submarine used by the other Canadian company, Toronto-based Visa Gold.
Visa Gold, which operates in Cuba out of Havana's Marina Hemingway, says it has already brought up some 7,000 artifacts including jewelry, diamonds and pistols from a brigantine called ``Palemon'' that sank in 1839 off Cuba's northern coast.
The new target in Havana Bay is the ``Atocha y San Jose,'' which sank in January, 1642, while trying to reach port after fleeing storms at sea. Like the other firms, Visa Gold combines sea exploration with research, checking archives in Spain and elsewhere to establish roughly where boats went down.
``This is a very historic point, the mouth of Havana Bay, the most strategic point in the New World at that time,'' company president Paul Frustaglio said at the launch ceremony.
Havana's large natural harbor and Cuba's location as a stopping point between Europe and mainland Latin America made the island a natural trade hub after the arrival of 16th century Spanish conquistadors.
ENORMOUS HISTORICAL VALUE
``Cuba is right in the center, the logical route for all the boats,'' local naval historian Cesar Garcia del Pino said.
Since boats congregated around Cuba, it was also logical many of them should sink here thanks to piracy, poor maps and navigation equipment, and regular storms in the Caribbean.
``I know of about 1,600 boats from the 16th to the 20th century that went down here. Those that came from Europe were full of merchandise and those leaving from America were carrying the products of the region -- gold, silver and so on,'' Del Pino said. ``I consider the historical value greater than the commercial value because a sunken boat is a time capsule.''
ADC is drawing on local talent, with a mainly Cuban staff of 50, including 14 on land and 36 on its research vessel ''Ulises.'' Most of its lower-tech equipment is also Cuban including the ship, which is rented from the government.
While the Canadian company is proud of doing good science, it also promises to make a lot of money and would like to plow some wealth back for the general good.
``They say there is $3 trillion of treasure lying on the bottom of the Caribbean, and a good part of that is near to Cuba because a good part of the wealth of the world came through Cuba,'' ADC representative Paul Weinzweig said.
``But you have to bear in mind that it is ill-gotten wealth. A lot of it is the result of rape and pillage of New World colonies. ... We want to cover our costs, provide a return to shareholders, and we also want to use a part of our personal share of returns to benefit people and humanity.''