Treasure Quest Magazine
JOURNAL OF THE PROFESSIONAL TREASURE HUNTER

 

The Jupiter Wreck Project

By Steven Singer

 

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    Just offshore of Jupiter, Florida, lie the remains of a Spanish treasure galleon.  Though not positively identified, it's believed to be those of the san Miguel el Arcangel, which was lost either late 1659 or early 1660.  She may have been trying to enter the inlet during a storm.  There has been local press coverage, but surprisingly not much national attention has been given the shipwreck.  The site has already given up over 10,000 silver coins to date, making it one of the more lucrative shipwreck sites, but more importantly, the coins being recovered are rare and in some cases in excellent condition.
     The wreck was discovered ten years ago, on July 12, 1987, by Peter Leo, a lifeguard for the city of Jupiter.  While taking a morning swim, Peter was astonished to find cannons protruding from the sand where he had been swimming hundreds of times before.  They were located in the shadow of the Jupiter lighthouse, just to the south of the Jupiter Inlet jetty and off the public beach.

     At first Peter thought they were probably Civil War vintage cannons, and he contacted some other local people to try and recover one of them.  However, it soon became apparent that they were much older than he first thought.  As they investigated the area further they located several more cannon and two large Spanish anchors.  About this time they began to recover some silver coins all from the 1600s.  
    Two or three feet of sand covered the wreck site, unusual for that area just south of the inlet, and Pete knew that it wouldn't be long before the sand would again cover the entire area. He realized that he had a potential bonanza on his hands, and along with a partner he quickly applied for a  Federal admiralty claim to the wreck site.  
     The admiralty claim for a lease was granted, but within months the Federal "Abandon Shipwreck Act" was passed, transferring all shipwreck sites over to the states whose waters they are located in.  Leo's group approached the state of Florida to legalize their claim, and a two year battle took place before the threat of a lawsuit forced the state to recognize their claim.  They were granted a state lease to legalize their working the site, and salvage began.


LIFEGUARD-COME-SALVAGER PETER LEO prepares to dive on "The Jupiter Wreck", perhaps San Miguel el Arcangel.

    During the first two years, before the lease was approved, they hand-fanned the area around the cannons and anchors.  No mechanical means of excavation were allowed until a formal state lease was approved.  In  Spite of this handicap they were able to recover over 1,200 silver coins, several gold coins, and an 80-pound silver bar minted in Lima, Peru, and complete with markings and a date...1652.

     By 1990 they had their state of Florida lease agreement approved and began salvage work using propwash deflectors to move the sand that now covered the site much deeper that when they first began.  Man, as well as nature had deposited tons of  sand south of the inlet.  A contract had been given to a dredging company to clear the inlet, and the sand they pumped out quickly settled over the wreck.  As the began in earnest to salvage their wreck, they found between ten and twenty feet of sand covering the cannons and anchors.  It was frustrating.

   The original group began to have disagreements among themselves, complicated by a number of salvage boats that were contracted to come in and assist in the salvage.  Keeping track of coins and artifacts became a headache.  The wreck site was now beginning to receive some negative publicity due to the disputed between the partners, as well as the various groups contracted to help salvage the site.  It was a good example  of "The Treasure Wars".  Finally, the state of Florida stepped in to help resolve the problems by placing a more restrictive lease agreement on the salvors.  Excavations resumed under a change in management. 
    Most work to date has been close to shore, and the ballast pile has never been located.  The trail of the wreck seemed to disappear the closer they got to the beach, so they began working seaward.  The further they moved to seaward, the more coins were found.  Then, in 1995, a dredge involved in the beach restoration project, was working offshore almost 1,000 yards when it began spewing ballast stones, artifacts, and a few coins onto the  beach!  How many coins were actually recovered on the beach is unknown, but the word was out and beach hunters descended on the Jupiter beach like flies around a honey pot.  Pete Leo, life guarding at the time recognized the coins as the same as those he was recovering inshore, and he made a mental note of the dredge's location.  They now had a better "fix" on where the ballast pile might lie and where the trail of wreckage must be.

    This year I had been working with my own salvage boat on the 1715 "Cabin Wreck" off Sebastian, Florida.  Weather has not been in our favor up there, water was dirty and high waves kept us out of the water more days than we worked.  A fiend of mine, Allan Gardner, had been diving with us on the "Cabin" site, but he soon left us to work the Jupiter wreck site with his 55-foot salvage boat Ella Warley III.  With weather pretty bad on the "Cabin" site I had an opportunity to dive with Allan the first couple of days he was on the Jupiter site.  The need for a fairly large salvage boat soon became apparent with twenty feet of sand covering the wreckage.


 R/V ELLA WARLEY III moored over "The Jupiter Wreck" with her two large propwash deflectors lowered and blowing sand aside below. Only on days this calm can her divers work this close to shore.

     It took two hours to get the initial hole dug to hard bottom, with the sand sliding in as fast as it was dusted away.  But once the bottom was reached, Allan was able to maneuver his salvage boat a few feet at a time, keeping the sand  from filling the hole, and uncovering more of the bottom. When he began, his blowers were only a few feet above the sandy bottom, making it more difficult to excavate, and because the water was fairly shallow there was no place for the sand to go except back in the hole.  A smaller salvage boat could work in the shallow water, but wouldn't have the motor power to move such tremendous quantities of sand, and normally a larger boat would be hitting bottom in the shallow water.  Because the Ella Warley III is a shallow draft boat with two powerful engines, it is ideal for these conditions. 
   That first day was exciting.  Bob Marx came aboard and had more than enough shipwreck stories to keep All of us entertained.  He had been working on the Juno Beach wreck site about four miles further south.  This wreck was originally found in ninety feet of water, with the scatter pattern heading straight for the beach.  Marx had some information on where he thought it may be, and the group with the lease on the site retained his services.  That first day he put them right on top0 of a large section of the wreck they had never seen before.  The "Juno Wreck" is believed to be a late sixteenth-century Spanish vessel.


 The close proximity of Jupiter Beach is apparent as one looks between the two large propwash deflectors (raised) carried by the R/V Ella Warley III.

     Visibility that first day was Ok, though you has to let the silt settle before diving to the bottom of the hole.  That didn't keep the divers out of the water, and immediately after the engines were shut down they all headed for the bottom, including myself.  Everyone wanted to be the first to find a coin, with that honor going to Dave Foster.  After a few minutes though, visibility got much better and we had a chance to see the 25-foot crater that the Ella Warley  had dusted clear to the bottom.  It was late, and we shut down for the day.  It was decided to keep the salvage boat anchored over the site during the night, and expectations were high for the next day.

     The weather was good the following day, and with an incoming tide the visibility was great that morning.  Ten coins and a pewter screw cap were recovered, as well as a few ballast stones.  I noticed these ballast stones were a bit different than the ones we are use to finding on the 1715 fleet sites.  Instead of  being round river rock, these were more irregular, not smooth at all, possibly form a quarry.  Pete Leo, the remaining original partner, joined us that afternoon, swimming out from the beach.  It was then that we noticed the sand piling up behind the salvage boat, and it was decided to move the boat closer to shore and work seaward.  After moving the boat the day was about finished.  Marx called saying they had recovered the "first" coin  from the Juno wreck.  I headed home, wishing Allan and the crew "good luck".

   I had an opportunity to visit the site about a week later.  By now over 100 coins had been recovered.  Before leaving we observed another larger salvage boat, the Ocean Star, had arrived to work the site.  It would be used to help locate the ballast pile further seaward.  
  As of this date a number coins are being recovered every day when weather permits the savage boats to work.  Word has it that the Ocean Star is getting close to the ballast pile, finding more coins including a large clump of coins, and a greater concentration of  ballast stones.  The rush of tide and current makes it difficult to work further seaward, even with a three-point anchorage.  And there are other problems the salvors face.  There are plans to extend the jetty seaward soon, and this would result in more sand being deposited on the site.  The salvors are fighting time as well as nature.


Allen Gardner, Jr., detects in the crater below "ELLA".

    But so far the site has proved rewarding for the salvors.  To date over 10,000 silver coins and almost 100 gold coins have been recovered.  Two gold bars, as well as a few "bits" of gold, a silver bar weighing 80 pounds, a large copper cooking pot complete with dolphin handles, a pewter shaker box, two arquebuses (muskets), a silver fork, silver spoon, musket balls, cannon balls, and two cannon have been raised.  Six more cannons remain on the site.  The majority of the silver coins are from the Potosi mint and dated 1658.  Twelve of the gold coins are two escudos from the Bogota mint.  Also some rare transitional coins have been recovered, including a "Star of Lima" eight-reales  and an eight-reales  from the Cartagena mint.
   It's an exciting wreck, one that continues to give up its treasure.  But time is running out, more quickly that the salvors would like to see.  Let's hope the ballast pile is located before the jetty sand covers the site forever.                                                                                                      = Steve Singer =       

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Reprints of "The Best Of Treasure Quest Magazine" are used with permission from a series of stories in Treasure Quest Magazine
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 great modern day treasure hunters.
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