• U.S.

Science: The Treasure of Silver Shoals

5 minute read

Galleon sunk in 1641 is found

As a teen-ager in rural Pennsylvania, far from the sea, Burt Webber had visions of finding long-lost treasure in sunken ships. First he took up scuba diving; later he embarked on a long trail of treasureless sea hunts, barely supporting his growing family as a peripatetic encyclopedia salesman and brickworker. But last November Webber’s ship finally came in. Blessed by coincidence and new technology, the 36-year-old adventurer located the site of a 17th century Spanish galleon, the Concepción, some 80 miles north of the Dominican Republic. With his research partner, Jack Haskins, 44, the jubilant diver surfaced last week in New York City to face the press amid speculation that a salvage operation could yield up to $40 million worth of booty from the brine.

The Concepción’s history was tantalizingly familiar to rival treasure hunters. As the admiral ship of Spain’s New World fleet in Mexico, it set off for the mother country in 1641 with a year’s haul of gold and silver. Heading up the Bahama Channel toward Florida, it sailed into a hurricane that sank several of the ships in its fleet. The Concepción nearly capsized, but a desperate crew righted her by chopping off chunks of mast and rigging. Her gunpowder soaked, the ship was defenseless against pirates, so the admiral in command veered south for Puerto Rico, hoping to stash the treasure there until the Concepción could be repaired and restocked.

It proved a fateful decision. Roughly 80 miles off the coast of the island of Hispaniola, the wooden ship ground into a coral reef known today as Silver Shoals. The admiral and much of his crew floated to shore on rafts lashed together from the debris, but the ship’s rich cargo sank beneath the waves. Just 46 years later, Colonist William Phips, born of a poor Maine family, found the Concepción and hauled up 32 tons of silver from the barnacle-encrusted wreck. In return for one-fifth of the find, a grateful King James II of England knighted his noble servant and made him Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. But by the time modern sea hunters began looking into the story, a crucial log from Phips’ expedition, with compass bearings for the site, had vanished.

Following a steady procession of other curious adventurers, Webber launched his first search for the Concepción in January 1977. He was backed by a consortium of bankers and aided by a team of divers, cartographers, numismatists and electronics technicians. His fishing boat was equipped with sophisticated tracking instruments in addition to $15,000 worth of maps made from aerial photographs. This was not, as Webber put it, a Captain Kidd operation. Said he: “It was purely academic, based on research and scientific technology.” Webber did have to strike a sort of treasure hunter’s bargain, however. In a contract with the Dominicans, he promised the government a fifty-fifty split of any treasure found.

Five months and 13 shipwreck sites later, Webber conceded defeat, even though he knew he had probably floated right over the Concepción. The problem: his principal tool, an onboard magnetometer for detecting telltale aberrations in magnetic fields, could not be used effectively. Haskins’ research had revealed that the galleon was outfitted with nonmagnetic bronze cannons and that its iron anchors had been cut loose in deeper waters. The ship’s remaining iron artifacts, such as hull fittings and cannon balls, had slipped into coral crevices where the device could not detect them.

Two breakthroughs persuaded the treasure hunters to try again. In England, a fellow researcher provided stunning information: the missing log had just been uncovered in a private archive. Exulted Haskins: “That was the last piece of the puzzle.” In Canada, a highly portable magnetometer was developed that Webber later had modified for use under water to permit readings in hard-to-reach crevices.

Last November Webber and a 16-member crew set off again for Silver Shoals, this time in a converted British coastal minesweeper. Only 150 yds. from the spot indicated by the 17th century expedition’s log, they found iron fittings and pottery shards. Soon after, they found a 17th century Spanish olive jar, a rare Chinese cup and silver pieces of eight dated 1639 and earlier. Not a trace remained of the Concepción ‘s wooden hull.

A Dominican corvette now guards the site as plaudits pile up from other sea hunters. Admits Jacques Cousteau: “I would have liked to discover it myself.” Melvin Fisher, president of Key West’s Treasure Salvors Inc., calls the Concepción “a fabulous find, a major discovery,” but he cautions that Phips may have virtually exhausted the treasure after all. For now, Webber can afford to shrug off any doubts. His backers’ investment of $500,000, he reports, “is already covered.” And the salvage operation, confidently scheduled to last six months, has just begun.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com