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Scuttled in a Sea of Mystery

Modern explorers think they have found one of Columbus' ships off Panama. The deeper question is who has the rights to it.


PLAYA DAMAS, Panama — Warren White and his son were swimming just off the beach when they saw it.

About 16 feet below them, a mass of coral and rock reared up from the sandy bottom. On top, in plain view, sat two coral-encrusted cannons.

"Look at those guns," White thought. "Those things are ancient."

So ancient, in fact, that White and a handful of scholars have come to believe that the wreck is one of Christopher Columbus' ships, the Vizcaina, abandoned in 1503 during his last voyage.

The indications are intriguing. The location seems to match a description of the scene of the Vizcaina's scuttling. The cannons are from the right period. So is a piece of pottery.

If true, it would be the first time anyone has found one of the nine ships Columbus lost during his four expeditions to the New World, controversial passages that opened a new continent to exploration and exploitation.

Despite years of research, scholars still aren't sure what Columbus' ships looked like, what they carried or how they managed their long voyages. Everything that is known about them comes from written accounts or bureaucratic records sorely lacking in details.

That's why White's discovery may be so important. Whether or not it is the Vizcaina--and there is skepticism--the wreck is almost certainly one of the oldest found in this hemisphere.

"There is a big gap in knowledge," said John de Bry, director of the Center for Historical Archeology, a Florida-based nonprofit group that specializes in ships of the Spanish colonial era. "We know more about the construction of Roman ships than the ships of exploration."

That also explains why so much controversy now surrounds the wreck, and the people exploring it.

A private group backed by U.S. investors who call themselves "treasure hunters" is excavating the find. While promising to respect the wreck's historical worth, the group is clear in its intention to make money off it, either through film rights or the selling of artifacts.

Marine archeologists, however, say the group already has badly bungled the recovery, carelessly yanking up artifacts, botching preservation and perhaps destroying evidence that could help solve the mystery of the ship's identity.

"Maybe it will turn out to be a ship that can be identified with early explorers and conquistadors," said Donald Keith, an underwater archeologist who has spent years trying to find Columbus' wrecks. "Whatever it is, it's important--and we can learn a lot from it, but only if we do it right.

"None of these people know what they're doing, and they're shooting themselves in the foot."

The controversy places White's discovery squarely in the middle of one of the biggest legal questions of the modern era: the ownership of treasures held by the sea.

There are thousands upon thousands of wrecked ships on the world's sea bottom, ranging from ancient Greek vessels to the Titanic. As undersea technology has improved, more and more of them have been opened to exploration. Just last month, shipwreck hunter Robert Ballard claimed to have found John F. Kennedy's World War II patrol boat in the South Pacific.

That means more wrecks have also been exploited for plunder. The problem has grown so serious in recent years that the United Nations launched a drive to better protect shipwrecks. Last year, the U.N. General Assembly gave preliminary approval to the archeological underwater convention, the first of its kind.

In many ways, the controversy over the wreck found in Panama is similar to the one that has attached itself to Columbus: the nature of discovery.

What counts as a discovery? What rights does a discoverer have? Who else shares in them? And what happens to the people or things discovered?

"The storms continue to pursue Columbus' ships," said Rafael Ruiloba, director of Panama's National Cultural Institute.


By 1502, Columbus was on his last legs. He was 51. He was suffering from gout. He had failed to find riches or a new route from Europe to the Indian Ocean.

And so he decided to make one more voyage to the Americas from Cadiz, Spain, in four vessels: the Gallega, the Vizcaina, the Capitana and the Santiago. The trip would prove a disaster.

He lost one ship, the Gallega, in the Belen River on Panama's Caribbean coast as he fled a band of natives angry over his crew's pillaging of local gold and the imprisonment of their leader and his family.

Columbus headed south, but the Vizcaina was leaking badly, the victim of sea worms that had destroyed its hull. Columbus decided to abandon the Vizcaina. Later, he was marooned in Jamaica and had to abandon his last two ships as well.

Columbus wrote that he scuttled the Vizcaina in Portobelo, the Spanish colony near Playa Damas through which all the gold taken from the Inca empire in Peru would one day pass.

The ship disappeared, literally and figuratively, into obscurity. Five hundred years later, the mystery of its whereabouts would become White's obsession.

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