In the make-believe world of adventure stories and television shows, the life of a treasure diver is a simple, successful one. The underwater hero swims down into the cabin of a sunken ship. After outsmarting a few dull-witted sharks and besting a rival diver who tries to cut his air supply, the hero returns with a chest full of wealth. In actuality the treasure diver's life is sometimes an adventure. Occasionally it is rewarding—perhaps even in gold, for although he may claim to be a historian looking for fragments of the past, the professional diver will admit, as does Art McKee, organizer of the expedition shown on these pages, "when you get right down to it, we're after treasure."
Regardless of what he is trying to find, however, the search is never simple. Sometimes the sea and everything in it seem to conspire against him. Certainly it was that way for the men in McKee's expedition, which went out recently to search the remains of an old ship sunk on a reef southwest of Jamaica.
On the shoals of the Pedro Bank where they worked, for 16 hours of every 24 the tide ran a knot and a half, and almost every day breakers born of distant Caribbean storms boiled over the reef so that a diver wearing 25 pounds of lead had to crawl and hang on or be pulled away like a limp doll. For two weeks the divers averaged six hours a day below, the best of them working 11 hours without surfacing. Despite these hazards, the divers managed to lift and sift through 50 tons of debris, finding buttons, buckles, pipes and shoes, galley utensils and religious medals, cannons and sidearms, deadeyes and tackle blocks and swatches of sailcloth.
Out of this hodgepodge, what had the divers actually learned? A number of things. First, to judge by the religious medals and the cannons, it was a Spanish merchantman sunk some time before 1750. The ship had touched one port and was bound for at least one other before turning home to Spain, for the cargo included knife blades to trade in the New World and also cocoa beans to take back to the Old. The ship had struck the top of the reef and left much of its ballast rock there. Its cannons were scattered wildly over the area of a football field, yet, judging by the lack of human bones, none of the crew were trapped below when the ship went down.
Was it worth two weeks of hard labor to find just this much? "It is always worth it to me," one of the divers said, "because when I dig I always think that just a foot deeper in the sand lies something I really want to find."
In a blue hole on the reef the diver puts his shoulder against a rib of the old ship to pry it out of the rubble that has covered it for more than 200 years.
On the remote reef the fish are too friendly and the sea seldom friendly enough. As the divers wrench at the buried timbers of the old ship (above), a panhandling gang of goat-fish, grunts and wrasses, attracted by food in the silt, is constantly underhand and underfoot. On top of the reef (right), a diver spends most of his time hanging on, pulled first one way and then another by the force of the eight-foot breakers that roll like storm clouds over him.
In the battle under water the men often found both the sea and their own elaborate digging equipment fighting against them. As the waves grew big overhead, the air-lift pipe that the divers used for sucking sand and detritus away from the wreck would suddenly rear back, fighting to get free, snarling its handlers in a nasty, dangerous tangle of air lines. At other times the pipe would lunge forward, clog with debris and refuse to suck any more until the divers, like monkeys on a giant stick (below), crawled along its length pounding the obstructions loose.
Ship's tools and utensils were found scattered over 50 square yards. Of these, the bronze mortar and the clay bowl (upper left) will last, but the caulker, hammerhead, marlin spike, tongs, balancing scale and axhead, all of forged iron, will soon become oxidized and crumble to dust.
Valuable finds (right), most of them uncovered near a section of the ship's ribs, include a silver-plated dagger handle, religious medals and crosses, a thimble, key, rattail spoon and a measuring rod.