Isaac Nunn, left, and Warren White
, right, gaze over preservation tanks at Marine Investigations of the Isthmus headquarters outside of Portobelo
PLAYA DAMAS, Panama -- Warren White
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
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.
, a hobby diver and amateur historian, comes from a family of salvagers.His
great-uncle, for one, worked for an insurance company, pulling wrecks off reefs in the Florida Keys.
By 1995, the native Floridian had retired from his
job as a policeman, moved to Panama and begun nurturing a dream of discovering the Vizcaina.
Given the ambiguous geography in early records, White thought that the ship might have actually been abandoned near modern-day Nombre de Dios, a town near Portobelo
that boasted a more convenient harbor to flee from in case of danger.
At first, White
found nothing.Then he
noticed a cove near Nombre de Dios called Playa Damas, about 14 miles east of Portobelo
.It was similar to the description of the place where the boat was scuttled, on a reef behind two small islands.
In May 1998, White
son were exploring the cove when White
decided to make one last pass in search of lobster for dinner.Instead, he
saw the shipwreck.Although White
recognized the characteristic straight lines and bulk of an undersea wreck, the cove's isolation had apparently kept the wreck secret for hundreds of years. He
contacted the Panamanian government but got no response.
"They said they weren't interested in an old Spanish wreck," White
The wreck seemed destined to be abandoned a second time.
That's when Marine Investigations of the Isthmus came into the picture.
Last October, White
bumped into Nilda Vasquez outside the sailboat he
lives in near Portobelo
...White, who is a partner in the group, also said that extra items could be sold off. White
, Vasquez and Nunn all said they were doing everything possible to excavate the site in an archeologically sound way, noting that they had built preservation tanks for the artifacts and were working with the cultural institute.
believes that they might have been stripped from the Gallega.Second, the anchors appeared to be resting amidships, as if they had been placed there to weigh down the vessel to scuttle it.
Rigging chains also indicated that the ship was square-rigged, as it is believed the Vizcaina was.Also, stone cannonballs and a bronze canister that served as a loading charge were used in the 16th century.
The strongest piece of evidence may be a small shard of pottery that appears to date the wreck to at least the first half of the 1500s.