Anatomy of a 17th Century Shipwreck

Text written by John Mattera

Photos by John Mattera & Howard Ehrenberg

We do not know what name she went by, so we have given her one. As a matter of course, we have given her a few. Her name changes as we learn more about her, or more precisely, as we grow to know her better. On June 8, 2008, as we passed over her with a magnetometer for the first time, she became anomaly #48. While actually a series of mag hits, she was given one name for brevity’s sake and sub-listed with each individual mag hit. In August of that same year, after we put divers in the water for the first time, the dive notes for that day read, “Visibility 10-12 feet, depth 12 feet, no hits found with the hand metal detector, a few ballast stones were discovered, photographed and left on the site, needs further investigation.”

It was another year before we were able to get back to #48, and in that expanse of time, her name had been changed, this time to Juliet #48. We had since begun naming the treacherous, shallow water reefs from the phonetic alphabet, a good idea although a bit short-sighted. It only worked for the first 26 reefs we encountered. After that the names became more creative.

Much time passed, as it often does in our business, before we could get back and visit Juliet. Then one day on a return trip from marking and photographing a cannon site, I had two divers on board the boat, the visibility was exceptional, and Juliet #48 was close by.

“Hey, guys, we are going to make a bounce dive on another site about a mile away and see if there is anything interesting.” Believe it or not, that statement was met by a less-than-enthusiastic response. It had been a long day of diving, but a couple of minutes in 12 feet of water were not going to kill anyone, hopefully, so an executive decision was made, and the guys were going to get wet, yet again. Cruising up to the GPS numbers, Heiko Kretschmer prepared a marker buoy with 15’ of line, dropping it on signal. With no wind and very little current, I decided to “live boat” it. That is when I toss the divers over board without the benefit of an anchor line and they are pretty much at my mercy. It is not a technique that is practiced much in the North Atlantic, but here in the Caribbean it works just fine.

Less than three minutes into the dive, Heiko popped to the surface like a dolphin. As he spit out his regulator, his normally calm demeanor had been suddenly replaced with gasping shouts. “There is a huge ballast pile down there. It is covered with bronze artifacts. They are everywhere!” Not a minute later Howard Ehrenberg surfaced looking for his camera post haste. Their enthusiasm was to set the pace for the rest of the day; electric was an understatement. There are times in this world that truly merit that quintessential, “this is a great moment in my life” pause, and finding a virgin shipwreck is definitely high on the list. Finding a 300-plus-year-old wreck is all the more exciting. Heiko’s and Howard’s enthusiasm existed on many levels as I was only just finding out. First of all, this was a big ballast pile, which meant this was a big shipwreck. Then there was the fact that there were hundreds of bronze ship fittings scattered all over the reef. In the divers’ experienced eyes, this held a double meaning. First of all, this was a well-built ship, put together with very expensive hardware, which would likely carry a very expensive cargo and/or wealthy passengers. It also meant that they were probably the first people to touch her remains since she went down. The plethora of bronze artifacts strewn among the ballast stones attested to this. The date, believe it or not, was June 8, 2009, one year to the day from when we first found her.

Since that memorable dive, she has been photographed, drawn, side-scanned, magged, micro-magged, photo mosaicked, and her name was once again changed. We now call her the “Bronze Wreck” for obvious reasons.

Here I sit over Juliet reef in early December 2010 in relative comfort on the deck of the Galleon Hunter. It is our third excavation trip, work day number 28, in our quest for answers. I sit while excavation is underway just 12’ below me. I am monitoring the communications box with a little over an hour before it is my turn on the water dredge.

Heiko and John Chatterton are both underwater. One is handling the business end of the dredge and the other is moving rocks, one 55-gallon drum at a time. I hear them chatting away, but their idle banter interests me not, for I am already too busy multi-tasking. I am writing an article for Wreck Diving Magazine while the air compressor drones on. I have one eye dedicated to the gauge that tells me that their surface-supplied air supply is okay, and the other to my computer screen. Their conversation moves to super-hero characters and one of them starts humming the theme for “Iron Man,” which totally loses me and disrupts my multitasking. My current task is to monitor their breathing gas and communicate their needs to the dive tender and support crew, not to entertain them. So it is back to my article I go and my mind’s eye drifts to the remnants of the wreckage below.

She is not a shipwreck in the classic sense that one would expect. All that remains visible is an oblong-shaped ballast pile - round river rocks in a shape roughly resembling a ship. Ballast rock was extra weight that a tall sailing ship carried to keep from bobbing around like a cork in a bathtub. It lowered the center of gravity of the ship into the water making her manageable. Ballast came in all forms of weight from big slabs of quarried stone to old, obsolete cannons. But the most common type, especially of the age that we are looking for, was dense, heavy, round, river rock. This provided the most weight while taking up the least area possible. This was an important goal of the early mariner, and the round stones of various sizes would accomplish this while minimizing damage to the ship from the inside during rough seas. In our world, round rocks, made smooth by thousands of years of swift river water moving over them, help to identify the remains of a shipwreck. Unless man dropped them there, they have no business on a coral reef under the sea. When you see a ballast pile for the first time, you immediately understand its implication.

When I was growing up, images of John Wayne in “Wake of the Red Witch” filled my imagination, as well as sailing ships, complete with rigging, waiting patiently for me under the waves. Unfortunately, reality was a cold awakening for me. The first time I dropped on a shipwreck I was fifteen years old. She was a British, Civil War-era, cargo vessel named Western World, located off the picturesque town of Spring Lake, New Jersey, in 20-odd feet of very cold November water. I must have missed the dive briefing, as I made the whole dive on what I thought was a pile of rubble and never saw the ship, or so I thought. My disappointment was epic! Hollywood, what had you done to me? It was very difficult for me to come to grips with the fact that sometimes shipwrecks, especially the shipwrecks of the era I was interested in, didn’t resemble my storied imagination.

But before you begin to feel sad for my lost innocence, I must tell you that I have grown to accept this natural course of events of the life of a shipwreck as a matter of passage, so much so, that I now embrace it. There are few places in this world where I am happier than when I am sifting through a ballast pile, excavating the remains of a shipwreck, trying to reconstruct her tragic story. The only way to uncover the past of the long-broken-down remains of a shipwreck, to allow her to reveal her secrets, is to dig around and underneath her remains. Shipwrecks in the area we dive, for the most part, are untold stories. The occupants usually did not survive to tell their sad tale of woe. While Samaná Bay is mostly sheltered, the reef system, where we sometimes work, is fifteen miles long. Typically, the seabed can rise from 130’ to 8’ deep in the blink of an eye. With this dramatic, underwater topography the weather can go from bath tub calm to violent beyond description, just as fast. The closest landfall from our wreck sites is about eight nautical miles away. We would be hard pressed to survive a tragedy today, even with our modern advantages. Four hundred years ago most ocean-crossing travelers did not even swim, and did not dress appropriately for it either. By some miracle, if they did make it to shore, they had a fairly good chance of falling prey to the local inhabitants. Although some were friendly, others were less so. The next challenge was a long hike through the most inhospitable jungle imaginable, for weeks or even months, to reach some semblance of civilization. So you begin to see, the odds were stacked against survival, and the ones who did actually survive could not give much detail about where they were. What was finally said and recorded could very well have been lost or is still tucked away in some anonymous corner of a closed archive an ocean away.

The breakdown of a shipwreck begins almost immediately. Usually, whatever storm drove its victim to the scene of her demise will further ravage her hull, dashing her mercilessly over and over against the reef. After that, she may or may not still resemble a ship, but her further destruction is assured by the relentless effects of Mother Nature. As the ship settles beneath the waves and the years pass, the gradual wearing-away of her proud lines continues, as her sides give way to the wind, tides and waves, and her scatter trail or debris field is settled. Teredo worms and other micro-organisms perform their unyielding destruction of the hull. Given enough time, it will all be gone. First, the organic materials such as wood, fabric, and leather (eventually) will give way. The non-organic materials such as rock, ceramic, porcelain and certain metals will survive longer. Where the ship has settled, the depth of water, amount of sunlight, currents, wave action, bottom composition, marine life, and countless other variables all come into play. There is very little shipwreck preservation in an ocean environment that makes much sense to me. The words “preservation” and “salt water” are on opposite ends of the conservation spectrum. We prefer to rescue what we can, and then have the lab work its conservation magic.

The excavation begins.

JC, who is a production machine, designs the plan, albeit reluctantly. For some reason he has never been fond of the Bronze Wreck site, but reluctant or not, he goes about his job with steadfast determination, punctuated by some colorful metaphors while systematically building a plan. The ballast pile is 39’ in length by about 23’ wide and lying 240 degrees. This most likely indicates the ship was approximately 80-90 feet in length, so we begin by digging a trench about five feet deep and about 80’ in length, running along the northern side of the ballast pile. We pay careful attention to photographing and marking the location and depth of any artifact uncovered. Over a period of time, this data will help us determine the best course of our continued excavation. Moving across the direction of the shipwreck, we continue our study, recovering and documenting every tack in-situ.

We try to schedule our work in two-week blocks. The work is slow, but our progress is steady, at least as long as the forces-that-be comply. At such a shallow depth, the surge can make it like working in a washing machine and it can become both difficult and uncomfortable. We try to monitor the weather forecasts, tidal flow, moon phases, and even water temperature, but ultimately the weather is the weather, and we get what we get. If you add to this our scheduling woes like crew schedules, flight timetables, ONPCS inspector availability, you begin to see our logistical dilemma.

As work continues, we move into the path of the debris/ballast trail and cut a series of trenches along the likely path of the broken ship at 20-foot intervals. Both the direction and depth of our path are determined by what we recover and catalog along the way. As we move through centuries of dead coral, the lively environment that we create causes a dramatic change in the eco-system. What has been a desolate reef system has suddenly taken a miraculous turn in fortune. A few days after we uncover these old rocks and coral, little fish are everywhere feeding off the fresh, up-turned nutrients. A few days more and bigger fish and octopuses arrive along with our new dilemma - sharks. They seem to appear from nowhere. I have not seen them too often in the waters of the Dominican Republic, but they have been legend here for as long as man has treaded water.

“Lobos del Mar,” as the Spanish treasure salvors called them, seem to be hanging out around our site lately. I read in the log book of a Spanish salvage vessel in these waters from the 1680’s where it mentioned, “We lost another native diver to the wolves of the sea today.” I always thought commercial divers gave sharks cramps.

I am not going to say that they scare me, but I really wish they would go swim somewhere else while I am working. I cannot watch what I am doing and watch for sharks as well. I have long ago stopped eating shark, feeling a symbiotic non-aggression pact would benefit the both of us. But who knows, I could bump into a shark who failed to get the memo. The way it looks to me, we are revitalizing the reef systems as we pass through them, while recovering carelessly deposited, and possibly harmful, man-made debris from the ocean’s floor.

Enough about sharks, our main concern is the shipwreck, or more precisely in this case, the lack of shipwreck we have uncovered as we have neared the end of our work area. We have finished our excavation plan and then continued farther than we thought we would have needed to.

Our conversations run the gamut back and forth on our boat and know few bounds. Views vary widely on what happened on that unknown date so long ago when the Bronze Wreck met her demise. While most of our previous shipwreck success was met after digging 4-5 feet below the existing seabed, our artifact recovery seems to end after 12-16 inches. We believe this is because of the very hard surface of the coral in which we are digging. Our excavation seems to turn up more questions than answers. While we are turning up vast quantities of artifacts, they are not of the nature we anticipated. All of the fittings are small in nature, not befitting a shipwreck of the Bronze Wreck’s size, and the cargo is much less than we anticipated. Opinions are thrown back and forth and two likely hypotheses prevail after all the evidence is weighed. The lack of cannons on board has always been an issue. In a time when cannons were a way of life, every wreck we find is virtually littered with big guns. One faction of our excavation team believes that the wreck was salvaged at the time of the sinking or sometime shortly after. The other opinion is that the ship bottomed out on Juliet reef, ripped open her keel, spilled her ballast, and the bulk of the wreck came to rest elsewhere. This scenario could explain the plethora of small ship fittings and nothing larger than what would be prevalent on the main deck structure of a big sailing ship. If the Bronze Wreck carried bronze guns, which is a very likely possibility, then that would explain not finding them with the magnetometer. Neither argument is without merit. There is only one course of action that makes sense to us at this point. We need to seek higher counsel.

With all we believed true in hand, we began the pilgrimage to the proverbial mountain for the answers. “Mountain” just being a figure of speech, in reality, we made the trek to the big white boat. However, the man we sought usually does have most of the answers to our questions. Captain Tracy Bowden has probably forgotten more about shipwrecks than I could ever hope to learn about uncovering storied shipwrecks in and around Samaná Bay for 35 years. So it is fair to say, his first statement, after the facts were presented, left me a little dismayed at first.

“This I have not seen much of.” There was a subtle pause for effect while I held my breath. “But I’ll tell you what I think, as I’ve been pondering this problem all night. The area where you are working is very dynamic. The reef is much larger and shallower than anything we have previously encountered. If the ship settled on this shallow reef with deep water all around it, just imagine the number of storms over the centuries that could have pushed it elsewhere. If you are not finding the wreckage near the ballast pile, you are going to have to push on in an extended search pattern, probably in a southwest direction. Hopefully, you can pick up a debris trail that may lead you to the rest of the wreck.”

It is a pretty fair guess to say that the winds were blowing east by northeast when the Bronze Wreck went down. That is the predominant direction that our wind howls from most of the time. If it was blowing from any other direction, the ship could not have made it this far into Samaná Bay. Therefore, a south by southwest course makes sense for our primary search area for our scatter trail. We formulate a quick plan to send three divers off about fifty feet apart, the center diver following our compass heading and running a reel. Sometimes the sea gods smile upon us, as we very quickly pick up a trail of errant ballast stones leading us across the top of the reef in the right direction. Just as fast, the sea gods take what they have given as the trail goes cold and a whole day’s search proves fruitless as we have travelled over 800’ from the ballast pile in a wide, 40-degree arc with no added clues. Further survey work is needed to locate the rest of the wreck. However, this may not be the most productive time. We have an Oficina de Patrimonia inspector from the Dominican Government on board and a full crew in place. We are set with dredges and surface-supply diving equipment to excavate, and dig is what we want to do. At this point, finding the rest of the wreck could be an extensive survey.

The only tough decision at this point is where to go, and again opinions vary. Even though our company is not a democracy, everyone, down to the line tender, is welcome to voice an opinion. Reminiscent of the old E.F. Hutton commercials, when Captain Tracy Bowden clears his throat to speak, divers listen.

“Maybe you guys should go to the Guadalupe.”

The old cliché, “the silence is deafening,” quickly comes to mind.

JC is the first to break it, speaking through a barely concealed smile. “Done. Let’s do it.”

Nuestra Senora Guadalupe, a galleon of mythic proportion, needs a lot more time to do her justice so that will be a story for another day. But the decision is made, just that easy.

On the several-hour voyage to the new site, we must circumnavigate the treacherous breakers that took Guadalupe, as well as countless other ships, both identified and those still to be discovered. Heiko uses the four hours most productively. Glued to his computer, he spends the time pouring over our satellite images of Juliet reef and beyond. Even though the boat is buzzing with excitement about our new destination, he will not let the Bronze Wreck rest. Perseverance pays off as he finds a very large sand-filled depression about 2000 feet from the ballast pile in exactly the right direction the scatter trail took us. We have another place to search anew for the rest of the ship after the Christmas holiday break.

If you are an aficionado of Wreck Diving Magazine, you may have noticed that some of my articles may leave the reader hanging without a conclusion. For this, I offer no apology. It is just the nature of our business…..Welcome to our world.

Under the auspices and existing contract that Tracy Bowden has with the Government of the Dominican Republic, all work is performed under the supervision of the Marina de Guerra and an inspector from the Oficina Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural Sub Acuático.

About the Author: John Mattera has been a certified diver since 1976, performing penetration and decompression dives in the North Atlantic since before technical diving ever had a name. Dozens of expeditions and over 5,000 dives later, John contributes a wealth of knowledge as the owner of Pirate’s Cove in the Domincan Republic. Pirate’s Cove is an offshoot of John’s primary business, Underwater Archaeology and Exploration Corporation with John Chatterton; a commercial archaeology firm that explores the world’s oceans and waterways in search of our past.

For more articles like this from John Mattera and other writers, don’t miss a single issue of Wreck Diving Magazine by visiting our website at

7 Responses

  1. John, ifeel for you. I dove off Sebastian Florida for 15 years on the 1715 treasure fleet. We found a little, have had great friendships, bad and good weather, and ate a lot of cheap food. I'v never been to the DR but would love to dive the caves and do some treasure diving. Loved your story. Good [email]luck.
  2. Nice article. Having hundreds and hundreds of shallow treasure diving dives in rough surf I can empathize with the author. It seems that after you become proficient diving we all look for something to do beside look at fish. Some go into teaching, some to photography, others to salvage or cave diving. But in my opinion treasure hunting is one of the best underwater tasks a diver can have. "It's a pirate’s life for me!"

  3. D_B
    Great story, Wonderful pictures ... looking forward to more
  4. Thanks for the great story - good luck with the continued operation! :thumbs_up:
  5. <blockquote><strong>D_B;5954894 wrote:</strong> Great story, Wonderful pictures ... looking forward to more</blockquote> <br /> Thanks for the kind words!<br /> <br /> I'm hoping that I can bring you more photos from our other adventures too!
  6. That sure beats working for a living!
  7. I picked up the Wreck Diving magazine last week and fell in love with the idea of diving again. I don't have a boat or gear yet, but, dang, what fun dreaming. This site is great motivation. Great article.