Although we all might wish otherwise, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha is not a fine Spanish restaurant found in White River Junction. No, it is the name of a very old sailing ship, which was part of a treasure fleet that sailed from Havana in September of 1622. September, by the way, is the height of hurricane season in the Caribbean. In retrospect perhaps the captains should have known better but the conditions were perfect on September 4 and there was no weather channel to consult. What could go wrong? They all thought. The decision was made to set sail for Spain.
The Atocha was part of a twenty-eight-ship fleet, which was heavily laden with gold, silver, emeralds and precious jewelry. Together the vessels weighed anchor and set off in a northerly direction toward the Florida Keys and the strong current of the ever-present Gulf Stream. It was a bad group decision and Captain Jim Cantore was not at the helm. It wasn’t long before the wind began to howl from the Northeast building the sea into mountainous waves. Those who were not seasick prayed desperately. While most of the fleet was driven into the relatively safe haven of the Gulf of Mexico, the vessels named Santa Margarita, Nuestra Senora del Rosario and Atocha plus two smaller vessels received the full force of the hurricane. With broken rigging, split masts and tattered sails all vessels were driven violently onto the reefs of Dry Tortugas. Two hundred and sixty souls aboard the Atocha alone perished in the sea.
Salvage attempts begun almost immediately by divers who were limited to holding their breath underwater. We can only imagine how well that went. The Spaniards used a large brass diving bell with a glass window on one side. A slave would ride to the bottom, recover an item and return to the surface by being hauled up by the men on deck. This operation was often lethal. Dead slaves were recorded as a business expense by the salvage captains. OSHA had yet to be conceived.
Prior to retrieving the treasure from the Atocha a second hurricane ravaged the area and tore the upper hull structure and masts from the ship. The Atocha had seemingly disappeared with the wind. Ten years of salvage attempts passed with no success and eventually time erased all memory of the treasure ship. Her register and log of events were squirreled away in dusty trunks of the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain.
Two key figures later emerged; the first was Jacques-Ives Cousteau who, having grown weary of holding his breath, invented the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (SCUBA) in 1942. The second was Mel Fisher who knew the value of these wrecks and had a burning interest in Spanish colonial shipwreck salvage. Fisher formed a company called Treasure Salvors and began the search for the Atocha all over again in 1970. Tragically, during the exploration, Fisher lost his eldest son, Dirk, his daughter-in-law, Angel, and a diver named Rick Gage after their dive boat sank in yet another storm in July 1975. Fisher was persistent however and The Atocha’s hull was finally found on July 20, 1985 lying in fifty-five feet of water. An estimated 200 million dollar cache has been recovered to date but this is only a fraction of the treasure that went down. The wealthiest part of the ship, the stern castle, has yet to be discovered!
Flash forward to Quechee, Vermont, which is a very unlikely village to harbor within it a modern day treasure hunter. Gregory Schultz holds a PhD from Georgia Institute of Technology in the rather cerebral field of Marine Geophysics. He and his wife Lori, who is also from Georgia, came to the Green Mountain State in 2002. Lori is an elementary education teacher at the Dothan Brook School in Wilder, Vermont, and their daughter, Adi, is five years old.
The Schultz’s were not looking for buried treasure in 2002, just jobs. In 2012, Schultz teamed up with other brilliant scientists and founded a company called White River Technologies in Lebanon, New Hampshire. Searching for buried treasure is not the main focus of the business while developing deep-water robots and Electromagnetic imaging is. This technology is especially useful in the recovery of bombs from the floor of the ocean, something that occurs more often than you might wish to imagine. The U.S. Navy often conducts weapons practice and, after an exciting week of bombing patterns, Dr. Schultz and his robots go in to clean up. The wreck of the Atocha coincidentally shares the area with an active Naval bombing range and the occurrence of encountering bomb fragments and the occasional live bomb in lieu of a treasure chest is no longer surprising. I imagine it is much like reaching into a hole for a chipmunk and finding a snake instead.
In the case of the Atocha, the original site of the sinking wreck has carved a trench of four to five miles in length while scattering an estimated one billion dollars of treasure in its wake. Wooden boxes filled with gold coins, bars of silver and massive bronze cannons have already been found. The bags of jewels and emeralds have not. Enter Doctor Schultz.
The robot employed by Treasure Salvors is affectionately called “Dolores” after Mel Fisher’s long-suffering wife. Whenever “Dolores” gets to being temperamental and weary of all the treasure hunting, Dr. Schultz is off to the clean blue waters of the Dry Tortugas in order to pacify her and try to understand what she is saying to the men on the surface. He lifts her from the warm water, buys her a margarita and asks, “Where are the jewels?” To date, Dolores remains coy but whenever I see my neighbor flying off to Key West on a frozen February day I say to my wife Kim, “Gee I wish I had a girlfriend in the Keys.” The temperature then continues to drop.
For those interested in the fascinating world of underwater technologies visit www.whiterivertech.com.
See you on the lake!