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The Treasure Trove of the Trinidad : New Attempt to Hunt for Fabled Galleon Off Oceanside

January 08, 1987|GORDON SMITH

OCEANSIDE — For 10 years, Bill Warren has dreamed of finding it: a Spanish galleon that sank 4 1/2 centuries ago, in shallow water tantalizingly close to Oceanside, while carrying $11 million in Aztec gold.

In 1976, Warren and a partner obtained a permit from the city to explore for the wreck, and spent long days trying to locate it with a sophisticated metal detector.

Once they believed they had pinpointed the old ship, they spent more time and money trying to clear away 25 feet of sand that had apparently buried it over the centuries.

That effort was unsuccessful, but now Warren is trying to round up experts and equipment to mount a new salvage effort for a ship that he believes is the Trinidad, one of three ships commanded by the Spanish explorer Francisco de Ulloa in 1539-40.

State OK Expected

Warren has applied to the state for a new permit to explore the ocean bottom about 1,000 feet offshore, and expects it to be approved in a couple weeks.

Finding the Trinidad and its treasure "has become an obsession with me," Warren said. "Once you start reading about it and exploring the possibilities of what's out there . . . ."

Obsession and eternal optimism are two of the hallmarks of modern-day treasure hunters, whose ranks include a few--such as Florida treasure-hunter Mel Fisher--who hit pay dirt, and thousands who don't. Fisher spent 16 years searching for the wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha that sunk off Key West, Fla., in a 1622 hurricane. He and his crew recovered the first riches from the wreck in 1971 and eventually recovered $130 million in glittering gold, silver and emeralds from the sunken ship.

Guru of Treasure Hunters

The advanced techniques that led him to the wreck of the galleon have made Fisher the guru of modern treasure hunters.

Warren may not have the resources of Fisher and his salvage company, Treasure Salvors Inc., but the Trinidad exerts the same magnetic pull on Warren's imagination that the Atocha did on Fisher's.

And Warren is not the only treasure hunter to search for the ship. Since 1968, at least four other groups have attempted to locate the Trinidad and its alleged cargo of gold. All have spent thousands of dollars and countless man-hours in the process, and all received extensive media coverage.

Since Warren renewed his search for the Trinidad in November, several newspapers and one local TV station have interviewed him about his plans. And he has at least one other thing in common with previous treasure hunters: Warren isn't bothered by the fact that historians are all but certain that neither the Trinidad nor any other treasure-laden Spanish galleon ever sank here.

"It's my judgment that the (story of the sinking of the Trinidad) is a very artfully contrived hoax," said Ralph Heiser, curator of the museum at Mission San Luis Rey in Oceanside. "I don't know how the hell it got as wide a dissemination as it did."

The sinking was a pet theory of the late Joseph Markey, an Oceanside ophthalmologist, amateur archeologist and treasure hunter. Although historians insist that in 1542 Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo became the first European to set foot in California, Markey was convinced that Ulloa anchored his ship near the mouth of the San Luis Rey River in 1540, two years before Cabrillo arrived.

Ulloa and his crew died after going ashore, and the Trinidad subsequently broke up and sank, Markey said.

Diary and Skeletons

He based his theory primarily on a sailor's diary that he claimed to have discovered in Spain--it was supposedly written by one of Ulloa's crewmen--and on two "finds" he made in the San Luis Rey Valley in the 1950s: a cave containing 22 skeletons and a cache of gold coins dating from the 1st Century BC to AD 1500. The skeletal remains belonged to Ulloa's crew, Markey said, and the coins were a fraction of the treasure on board the Trinidad, which Ulloa had planned to use in bartering with local Indian chieftains.

No one but Markey was ever able to examine the diary, however, leading to doubts about its existence. And the skeletal remains were never subjected to expert analysis to determine if they were Indian, European or even human. But Markey believed he could clinch his argument by locating the wreck of the Trinidad, and he became the first of many to look for it.

For three years, he and a small group of interested supporters built rafts laden with iron and cement, set them adrift near the mouth of the San Luis Rey River, and documented where they sank. Markey believed that, in this way, he would be able to determine approximately where the Trinidad went down, but the rafts sank in a wide area between Encinitas and Del Mar, and, frustrated, he eventually gave up his attempts to locate the Spanish ship.

However, Markey's theory that Ulloa, not Cabrillo, had discovered California attracted considerable media attention, and eventually brought other treasure hunters to Oceanside.

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