Often the identity of a wrecked vessel—particularly one that went down several hundred years ago—depends upon meshing bits and pieces of information: the knowledge of ships plying given routes within given dates, clues gathered from the recovery of artifacts, and archival material that might indicate the ship's mission, her manifest, armament, passengers and crew. It was toward this goal that Peter Copeland compiled notes and sketches on the wreck off Walker's Cay. The going wasn't easy. The first four months of the dive were marked by leaden skies, occasional high winds and intermittent rain, reducing visibility below the surface. "Except for five working days, we lost the whole month of April," said Frank Sorg Jr., director of the project.
By mid-May the divers had recovered 67 cannons, two anchors, pieces of Majolica dinnerware, ceramic olive jars, ballast stone, iron spikes and ship fittings. The coral-encrusted cannon were removed to Walker's, where 14 of them were stripped of coral, examined for markings and placed in a freshwater bath to leech the salt out. The others were placed in saltwater tanks to keep them from deteriorating. Still, no gold—no madonna. And then, while it seemed less likely as the dive continued that the Walker's wreck was the Maravillas, it seemed proportionately greater that the vessel was an important archaeological find. This was Copeland's opinion; he had probed the lower portion of the ship's hull, still intact.
The divers found evidence that the hull had been mahogany-sheathed as protection against shipworms. The cannon appeared to be of English, Dutch and Swedish origin, all three nations having trafficked in arms with Spain in the late 17th century. Planking and timber structure three feet above the keelson were scorched and burned. With neither gold nor silver found aboard, it was deduced that the vessel may have been salvaged by her own crew, then burned to recover her iron and to keep her from alien hands.
Throughout the summer the findings of the salvage team were reported to Dr. Eugene Lyon, an authority on Latin American history who has studied wrecks from colonial Spain. By assaying available data on the wreck and consulting the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Dr. Lyon finally concluded that the sunken vessel was the frigate San Juan Evangelista, which had been blown inside the reef line of the Little Bahama Bank in November 1714. The Evangelista, with 300 persons aboard, carried a payload of 300,000 pesos in silver. She had been headed for the Spanish garrisons of Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo. During a storm the ship lost her rudder and was dismasted. She drifted into the shallows but remained afloat. Only four lives were believed lost. The Spanish removed her treasure and returned the survivors to Havana. Because repairs were excessively expensive in so remote a location, the ship was burned and scuttled in early 1715.
Dr. Lyon has described the recent salvage of the vessel as "a real learning process." He views the recovered artifacts and the data compiled by Copeland as "historically significant, a true archaeological find" because it is unusual to discover a wreck with the lower portion of the hull so well preserved.
For a brief period, Abplanalp considered raising the Evangelista and restoring it as an exhibit for a university or a school of oceanography. He abandoned the idea on the advice of salvors who believed the hull might disintegrate if brought to the surface. Instead, he decided to return the cannon to the wreck, which he now views as an underwater site for skin and scuba divers from Walker's Cay.
Abplanalp and Sorg talk of further exploration. They talk not only of treasure, but of marine archaeology and the large-scale recovery of historical artifacts. There are, after all, thousands of wrecks out there.
Meanwhile, Peter Copeland is happy with the way it turned out. There is no gold madonna in the hulk, but the ship is more or less intact again, the way they found it. It could possibly become a sort of tourist attraction, almost like an underwater park for divers to visit and explore. It has become something of a monument. And that's what makes it an unusual treasure story. Welcome aboard the Evangelista.