Southwest of Jamaica in the open Caribbean—at 16� 52' north and 78� 6' west, to be slavishly exact—there is a beautiful and lonely place called Banner Reef that stretches for a mile and a half from nowhere to nowhere. It is a desolate reef, but seldom a quiet one, for the wind-driven swells of the deep are constantly assaulting it, smashing its coral monuments and smothering it in white fury. Banner Reef is the strongest, meanest link in a broken, twisted chain of shoals, cays and isolated rocks that extends for 60 miles along the windward edge of a sunken peneplain half the size of Connecticut. The geologists are not sure how this nasty line of reefs and rocks came to be and, until they can decide, I am willing to believe that the whole chain was forged by the devil on a mad afternoon and strung across the warm seas in treacherous and deceitful array simply to harass mariners.
Whatever its origin, the long, loose chain has served the devil well. Here and there under the white water of the reefs, the timbers and decayed iron of old sailing ships lie in common graves with the steel and brightwork of steam packets that foundered only yesterday. A mile out from the center of the chain, a modern 200-foot freighter stands against the horizon, seemingly under way, although in fact it is inextricably stuck on the shoulder of a barren cay. Like all the ships caught by the chain in the past four centuries, in time this freighter will be taken apart by the waves and digested by the slow chemical processes of the sea.
The science of wreck exploring—or marine archeology, as it is pompously called—is growing fast. Although none of the shoals and cays in the chain that includes Banner Reef is very safe or accessible, wreck hunters have probed a few of them. On one dry cay northeast of Banner Reef a wreck-hunting party using a metal detector is said to have uncovered the remains of a metal detector. I have not been able to verify this story, but from my own experiences I do know that at such remote places in the sea one can usually count on finding traces of men who came before. This past winter, for example, while picking through rubble on the same small cay where one metal detector supposedly discovered another, a wreck hunter named Sonny Clayton and I found part of an old boiler, a bottle of French sun lotion, the heating element from an electric toaster and five beach sandals—none matching.
The human race has a remarkable talent for turning a bad penny into a fast buck, and before long even these remote shoals, and the assorted litter they have been collecting, will be put to some use. Although no part of Banner Reef comes within four feet of the surface, at some time in the future resort hotels—a Sheraton-Buccaneer and a Banner Hilton—will probably be built there, catering to the scuba-diving set, who will be able to jump off the balconies and explore wrecks right on the hotel grounds. The exploitation of such a remote graveyard of ships may seem fanciful, but truly it is not. In a sense it has already begun: five old cannons recently were salvaged from a wreck on Banner Reef and replanted 120 miles away to wow the snorkeling tourists at the Reef Club on the north coast of Jamaica. Some day Banner Reef will be a well-equipped stop on the tourist map, complete with scheduled helicopter service, guided tours, nifty gift shops and all the stultifying conveniences that have spoiled so many fine, rowdy places in the Caribbean.
But for the blessed moment, at least, inconvenience and anarchy prevail on Banner Reef. It is still a perverse part of God's original, lopsided world, governed by a shifty code of natural laws. On Banner Reef there are sometimes two tides a day and sometimes only one, an aberration caused by a whim of the moon (there is a table for calculating this lunar effect, but it takes the genius of an ancient Mayan to understand it). The most trustworthy navigation charts claim there is a constant current of about a knot setting from the deep across Banner Reef to the shallow wasteland on the lee side. But while diving at several spots on the reef I have felt the current suddenly swing and run better than a knot in the opposite direction, so that, to avoid being carried off the deep side, I had to grab the base of a sea fan or the encrusted trunnion of an old cannon and hang on. This reef is no place for the trusting; you learn that quickly.
Leeward of the breaking seas, at five separate points on Banner Reef, the usual brown and mustard colors of the coralline ledge give way to a bright, cold blue, where the bottom drops away to a depth of 20 or 30 feet. These blue holes do not go through the reef. Instead, they extend from the lee side approximately to the crest, where the waves are usually having a smashing time. One geologist has suggested that the blue holes were caused by secondary faulting across the strike of the reef, but this does not seem reasonable to the wreck divers who have had a closer look. Here again, until better evidence is offered in court, I am satisfied that the devil scooped out the holes to bury ships whose bottoms were torn open on the reef top.
One of these blue holes, half a mile from the southwest end of the reef, holds the vital parts of a mysterious ship—a vessel that attracts because so much is known about it and yet so little; its main cargo could have been gold and silver or merely a humdrum lading of cheap goods.
Although wreck divers have worked only hit-or-miss elsewhere in the area, in the past 10 years an extraordinary number of them have picked at the remains of this one corpse in the blue hole on Banner Reef. I know of 65 divers who have worked there and, if you add up the days all of them have spent below at one time or another, it comes to something like five months of continuous digging by a four-man team. In that time more than 500 tons of limy sand and dead coral have been jetted away with hoses and sucked and resucked through the maws of dredges, each cubic foot of it tediously searched for the small trinkets and fragments of the wreck. Almost everywhere that divers have elected to dig in the blue hole they have discovered a disorderly assortment of ribs, beams, hull planks, cannons, spikes, bones, flintlock guns and pistols, rapiers and sabers, tools and tableware, tackle blocks and deadeyes, chainplates and trunnion plates, rotten rope and tattered swatches of sail. Since 1961 there have been six major expeditions organized to explore this wreck. Counting about $50,000 for equipment lost or worn out, the expeditions have poured more than $110,000 into the hole.
Some of the artifacts recovered by these expeditions are now in the Smithsonian in Washington. Others are on display at the Institute of Jamaica, at the Museum of Sunken Treasure in the Florida Keys and at the CEDAM museum in Mexico City. While many of them are intriguing showpieces, it is doubtful whether all the artifacts and fragments that have been dug out of the blue hole to date would bring $30,000 at a quick auction. In 10 years of off-and-on digging, there has been only one jot of gold found—a ring—and a few pounds of silver, much of it badly decomposed. Even if nothing of intrinsic value were recovered, scholars would dance a jig if the ship could merely be identified, for many of the artifacts taken from it would help date other wrecks. But after all that digging and considerable search in the archives of the New and Old Worlds it is still unidentified. No one knows the ship's name or where it was bound or how it ran afoul of the reef.
So the ghost ship in the blue hole remains a meaningless, useless link in the chain of history, but an unusual one if you consider the unseemly grip it has on modern, sophisticated men. North of Cuba, along the homeward route of the old Spanish fleets, there are many wrecks that have yielded more, or that might yield more, or that are at least more convenient and easier to work, but still, like a slick carnival pitchman, this one unrewarding old carcass buried in the middle of nowhere keeps pulling divers back for another try. I have never spent more than five hours in the blue hole on a single day, but I have seen other divers work below for 10 and 12 consecutive hours, groveling in a world they do not altogether fit. When the sea is in its most quixotic moments, even with 25 pounds of lead around them the divers are tossed to and fro, clumsy dolls struggling where angelfish drift serenely. In the current that scours the bottom, where scavenging goatfish move easily along through the silt, the divers must fritter away valuable air wrestling to hold the cumbersome dredging equipment in position. When the divers return to the surface after a long day, their skin is shriveled and their bodies shake in the evening wind. They curse their own inadequacy and the whole enterprise, but before they are done shivering and cursing they start laying plans for tomorrow's work.