Disinterring Sir Francis Drake
IT’S NOT JUST THE WARMTH OF THE WATER, it’s the smell that makes me nostalgic for the Caribbean. It’s a haunting blend of mangrove mud and garlic, a fragrance that prevails even under water.
It’s October 2011, rainy season in Panama, and I’m diving once more in a sea that has become home waters for many of my diving adventures.
The reefs are giant skeletons of staghorn coral that once dominated this coast. I’m diving through a petrified forest, a substrate now for the encrusting corals that thrive on the environmental changes that choked those once-majestic branching corals.
Colour is still alive and well here, the brain corals alone shining like artist’s colours across their limestone palette.
Orchestras of giant basket and tube sponges fanfare their hues. Lettuce-coral forests shelter pugnacious damselfish, challenging my camera lens as an intruder in their front yard.
My attention is focused down between the brain-coral bommies and old reef gullies. Spiny lobsters thrive in the gullies and clefts of the lower reef, and unwelcome yet magnificent
lionfish hide here by day.
They are the neighbourhood bullies, accidental introductions with no natural predators who have become a threat to many other species in the Caribbean.
On this assignment, however, it’s the round stones strewn in the alleyways of Salmedina Reef that interest me.
These are river stones, intruders a quarter of a mile offshore on a marine coral reef. Abducted and imprisoned in the bowels of old sailing ships, they spilt here when the bilges were torn apart on the reef in a past maritime tragedy.
These unmistakeable ballast stones are the evidence we seek to trace a trail that we hope will lead us to important lost pieces of British maritime history.
That trail promises to be a colourful adventure to share with equally colourful characters – such as Pat Croce, a seasoned entrepreneur with a child-like obsession.
So deep is Pat’s passion for the highwaymen of the sea that today one of his proudest and most popular achievements is his museum of pirates and piracy in St Augustine, Florida.
Thieves and cut-throats though many of them were, pirates remind us of lawless lusts that thrive in our subconscious.
To some extent we must admit that we all share Pat Croce’s obsession.
WHEN PAT HEARD that a Panamanian consortium, IMDI and EcoOlas, had hired an international team of underwater exploration specialists to survey for historic shipwreck sites in the area of Porto Belo, he naturally wanted in.
This consortium held government-granted concessions to explore critical areas of historical interest off the Panamanian coast. Pat knew that a special area of one designated search field included the last recorded position of the man he likes to call “the Queen’s Pirate” – his number one hero, Sir Francis Drake.
I’m lucky enough to be part of the dive team chosen for this task. The US, Australian, British and French divers who make up the Deeptrek team share similarly quirky histories. Initially sport divers who ultimately turned their recreations into careers, to a man (and one woman) we still share a passion for rediscovering lost history under water.
We reckoned we could bring to underwater archaeology skills and technology honed by the demands of oil exploration and its allied industries, but with one exciting difference.
Normally remote-sensing technology is reserved for water too deep for anything but robot submersibles. Using sophisticated sensing equipment in shallow seas alongside divers is a rare event in professional diving.
Porto Belo in Panama was a main staging post during the early Spanish colonial period. So much silver was stored in the town that, according to legend, bars of it were stacked in the street outside the customs house.
Today it’s a ramshackle shantytown nestling in the crotch of a deep jungle-covered bay. At the seaward end of the bay to the east lies Drake’s Island, a stone’s throw off Drake’s Point.
Old records indicate that Sir Francis was buried “four leagues” from Porto Belo, which matches this position well.
With this in mind, Pat Croce negotiated with the Panamanian group to hire a week of our survey time to carry out a concentrated search for Drake’s remains, and any evidence
of vessels from his last voyage.
In 1596, what was left of Drake’s last expeditionary fleet was moored forlornly outside Porto Belo Bay.
The town was protected by two robust Spanish forts, although Drake, safe beyond the range of their guns, knew that merely by anchoring outside the bay he could hold any Spanish vessels there prisoner in their own harbour.
His last voyage had been his most disappointing. The Spanish had defended each of his chosen targets in the Caribbean well, and both his ships and crews had been battered by the conflicts. Wounded and disillusioned, Drake finally succumbed to dysentery and died in the lee of steaming tropical jungle, far from the green fields of home.
He was lowered into the sea over the deck rail of the Defiance, one of the new “race-class” galleons.
These had put the more cumbersome Spanish vessels at a disadvantage until they modified their design.
OLD RECORDS SAY THAT DRAKE was buried in a lead coffin. Given the resources of the average ship’s carpenter of the time, this was more probably a simple wooden box coated in the sort of lead sheathing used to protect ships’ hulls from teredo worm.
Shortly after the burial, it was reluctantly decided by the crews to return to England. So short of able-bodied men were they by now that two ships, the Elizabeth and the Delight, would have to be left behind. To keep them from enemy hands, they would have been stripped of anything usable, then beached, scuttled and burnt.
We designated a three-mile area in which to search for Drake’s remains although, constrained by what we could achieve in a week, only portions of the field were chosen.
Using a GPS computer-co-ordinated combination of side-scan and sub-bottom sonar, matched with a magnetometer overlay, several marks of great interest emerged.
Unfortunately, simple bounce-dive check-outs found our divers in currents so strong that they could proceed only by hand-crawling along the seabed and reef. This was no way to get through the day, so investigation of the potential burial area was reluctantly postponed.
Far less problematic would be the search for the Elizabeth and the Delight, the two ships abandoned by the fleet.
Sheltering behind the shoulder of Drake’s Point lies Puerto Huerta. Accessible only by boat, this charming little bay with its sheltered beach is a popular local escape for sunbathing and swimming. It was the obvious first choice for hunting what might remain of Drake’s last fleet.
Operations were conducted from two highly modified RIBs. Deeptrek 1 carried a gantry with compressor and umbilicals for two separate surface-demand systems, while Deeptrek 2 wore a special aluminium carriage on her after-deck to support a swivel arm supporting
our various sonar arrays.
The modified control console carried enough electronic space-age wizardry to remind us of why the Deeptrek name had been chosen.
Locals had spoken of wooden remains that occasionally emerged from the sand in the bay, but assumed it was some old fishing-boat. When our two fully rigged RIBs arrived to investigate, our one-woman “office” Helene went snorkelling as we climbed into our scuba-sets.
What she found were structures that prompted an excited call for divers to investigate. A couple of us slipped into the warm, clear water and swam over to Helene. Right away we could tell that the scattered timbers beneath us came from a much older and mightier ship than some fishing-boat.
On the bottom, it took only the gentlest hand-fanning of the light shell-and-coral sand to reveal the remains of a large old sailing vessel.
Normally undiscovered wrecks have remained so by virtue of exposure or depth. Here, there was no discernible current, and we found ourselves in little more than 4m of water.
For this reason, on every dive we were escorted by the most colourful citizens of the Caribbean reef. Beautiful tub-gurnards flashed their gaudy blue wings in our faces, and subtly embroidered peacock flounders flitted away, resentful of us disturbing their favourite feeding grounds.
Among the sodden timbers nestled jewelled cerianthid anemones. False stonefish convincingly mimicked algae-covered timber among fan-worms thriving in the old wood. This was living history in a marine-life frame.
Hand-fanning the barren sand would quickly invite shoals of young grunt and damselfish, hoping for morsels disturbed by our intrusion. I still find this all-too-predictable street party an amusing distraction. However, it didn’t stop us gradually building a body of evidence from the scattered pieces of wreckage.
THERE WERE NONE OF THE big ballast fields or ancillary artefacts normally associated with maritime catastrophe at the site, and only three musketballs emerged from our preliminary searching.
No fully laden vessel would have made it this far into the shallow bay. This, together with a lot of burnt wood found among and under the timbers, pointed to stripped, burnt and scuttled vessels.
Although a hard-nosed professional, even our chief of archaeology Jim Sinclair had to admit that what we were diving on were probably the long-lost remains of Drake’s Elizabeth and Delight.
The lack of advanced ingression by wood-boring organisms in the main part of the timbers indicated that most of the remains must have stayed buried in a relatively protective blanket of sand.
Teredo worm had devastated only the uppermost exposed ends, leaving the lower parts and what was left of her planking remarkably well preserved.
It was fortunate that rainy-season storms had dusted off enough of the timbers temporarily to help us make our measurements, which confirmed that we had not one vessel to explore, but two.
The site was only a mile from our base, so even after Pat Croce had to return with cameraman Evan to Florida, we continued whenever we could to survey the Drake’s Point wrecks.
With the aid of metal detectors, more keel sections, a stem-foot and part stem timber soon emerged. Years of archaeological work lie ahead in the bay.
The only treasure to be found there was history itself – still a hard one for some people to get their head around.
“Treasure-Hunters Find Drake’s Coffin”-type headlines greeted readers of the sensationalist press, but the Sunday Telegraph and Thompson-Reuters press agency both sent responsible journalists to meet us and learn the real and, to us, more exciting story.
In Porto Belo Bay alone, our surveys suggest that other maritime time- capsules lie waiting to be discovered.
Mix 500 years of maritime history with an almost unexplored coastline, and you can imagine what history-hunters’ dreams might lie off this rugged coast.
Rico Oldfield will be talking about his Deeptrek dives at LIDS 2012.