On a wild and lonely Caribbean reef divers have been digging for a decade at the rotten timbers of an old Spanish ship. It is an unrewarding carcass. The searchers curse it, call it a fraud, but they keep going back to dig again, stubbornly sure that treasure—or some nebulous thing worth more than gold—lies just a foot farther, a foot deeper in the sand
March 08, 1965

Southwest of Jamaica in the open Caribbean—at 16° 52' north and 78° 6' west, to be slavishly exact—there is a beautiful and lonely place called Banner Reef that stretches for a mile and a half from nowhere to nowhere. It is a desolate reef, but seldom a quiet one, for the wind-driven swells of the deep are constantly assaulting it, smashing its coral monuments and smothering it in white fury. Banner Reef is the strongest, meanest link in a broken, twisted chain of shoals, cays and isolated rocks that extends for 60 miles along the windward edge of a sunken peneplain half the size of Connecticut. The geologists are not sure how this nasty line of reefs and rocks came to be and, until they can decide, I am willing to believe that the whole chain was forged by the devil on a mad afternoon and strung across the warm seas in treacherous and deceitful array simply to harass mariners.

Whatever its origin, the long, loose chain has served the devil well. Here and there under the white water of the reefs, the timbers and decayed iron of old sailing ships lie in common graves with the steel and brightwork of steam packets that foundered only yesterday. A mile out from the center of the chain, a modern 200-foot freighter stands against the horizon, seemingly under way, although in fact it is inextricably stuck on the shoulder of a barren cay. Like all the ships caught by the chain in the past four centuries, in time this freighter will be taken apart by the waves and digested by the slow chemical processes of the sea.

The science of wreck exploring—or marine archeology, as it is pompously called—is growing fast. Although none of the shoals and cays in the chain that includes Banner Reef is very safe or accessible, wreck hunters have probed a few of them. On one dry cay northeast of Banner Reef a wreck-hunting party using a metal detector is said to have uncovered the remains of a metal detector. I have not been able to verify this story, but from my own experiences I do know that at such remote places in the sea one can usually count on finding traces of men who came before. This past winter, for example, while picking through rubble on the same small cay where one metal detector supposedly discovered another, a wreck hunter named Sonny Clayton and I found part of an old boiler, a bottle of French sun lotion, the heating element from an electric toaster and five beach sandals—none matching.

The human race has a remarkable talent for turning a bad penny into a fast buck, and before long even these remote shoals, and the assorted litter they have been collecting, will be put to some use. Although no part of Banner Reef comes within four feet of the surface, at some time in the future resort hotels—a Sheraton-Buccaneer and a Banner Hilton—will probably be built there, catering to the scuba-diving set, who will be able to jump off the balconies and explore wrecks right on the hotel grounds. The exploitation of such a remote graveyard of ships may seem fanciful, but truly it is not. In a sense it has already begun: five old cannons recently were salvaged from a wreck on Banner Reef and replanted 120 miles away to wow the snorkeling tourists at the Reef Club on the north coast of Jamaica. Some day Banner Reef will be a well-equipped stop on the tourist map, complete with scheduled helicopter service, guided tours, nifty gift shops and all the stultifying conveniences that have spoiled so many fine, rowdy places in the Caribbean.

But for the blessed moment, at least, inconvenience and anarchy prevail on Banner Reef. It is still a perverse part of God's original, lopsided world, governed by a shifty code of natural laws. On Banner Reef there are sometimes two tides a day and sometimes only one, an aberration caused by a whim of the moon (there is a table for calculating this lunar effect, but it takes the genius of an ancient Mayan to understand it). The most trustworthy navigation charts claim there is a constant current of about a knot setting from the deep across Banner Reef to the shallow wasteland on the lee side. But while diving at several spots on the reef I have felt the current suddenly swing and run better than a knot in the opposite direction, so that, to avoid being carried off the deep side, I had to grab the base of a sea fan or the encrusted trunnion of an old cannon and hang on. This reef is no place for the trusting; you learn that quickly.

Leeward of the breaking seas, at five separate points on Banner Reef, the usual brown and mustard colors of the coralline ledge give way to a bright, cold blue, where the bottom drops away to a depth of 20 or 30 feet. These blue holes do not go through the reef. Instead, they extend from the lee side approximately to the crest, where the waves are usually having a smashing time. One geologist has suggested that the blue holes were caused by secondary faulting across the strike of the reef, but this does not seem reasonable to the wreck divers who have had a closer look. Here again, until better evidence is offered in court, I am satisfied that the devil scooped out the holes to bury ships whose bottoms were torn open on the reef top.

One of these blue holes, half a mile from the southwest end of the reef, holds the vital parts of a mysterious ship—a vessel that attracts because so much is known about it and yet so little; its main cargo could have been gold and silver or merely a humdrum lading of cheap goods.

Although wreck divers have worked only hit-or-miss elsewhere in the area, in the past 10 years an extraordinary number of them have picked at the remains of this one corpse in the blue hole on Banner Reef. I know of 65 divers who have worked there and, if you add up the days all of them have spent below at one time or another, it comes to something like five months of continuous digging by a four-man team. In that time more than 500 tons of limy sand and dead coral have been jetted away with hoses and sucked and resucked through the maws of dredges, each cubic foot of it tediously searched for the small trinkets and fragments of the wreck. Almost everywhere that divers have elected to dig in the blue hole they have discovered a disorderly assortment of ribs, beams, hull planks, cannons, spikes, bones, flintlock guns and pistols, rapiers and sabers, tools and tableware, tackle blocks and deadeyes, chainplates and trunnion plates, rotten rope and tattered swatches of sail. Since 1961 there have been six major expeditions organized to explore this wreck. Counting about $50,000 for equipment lost or worn out, the expeditions have poured more than $110,000 into the hole.

Some of the artifacts recovered by these expeditions are now in the Smithsonian in Washington. Others are on display at the Institute of Jamaica, at the Museum of Sunken Treasure in the Florida Keys and at the CEDAM museum in Mexico City. While many of them are intriguing showpieces, it is doubtful whether all the artifacts and fragments that have been dug out of the blue hole to date would bring $30,000 at a quick auction. In 10 years of off-and-on digging, there has been only one jot of gold found—a ring—and a few pounds of silver, much of it badly decomposed. Even if nothing of intrinsic value were recovered, scholars would dance a jig if the ship could merely be identified, for many of the artifacts taken from it would help date other wrecks. But after all that digging and considerable search in the archives of the New and Old Worlds it is still unidentified. No one knows the ship's name or where it was bound or how it ran afoul of the reef.

So the ghost ship in the blue hole remains a meaningless, useless link in the chain of history, but an unusual one if you consider the unseemly grip it has on modern, sophisticated men. North of Cuba, along the homeward route of the old Spanish fleets, there are many wrecks that have yielded more, or that might yield more, or that are at least more convenient and easier to work, but still, like a slick carnival pitchman, this one unrewarding old carcass buried in the middle of nowhere keeps pulling divers back for another try. I have never spent more than five hours in the blue hole on a single day, but I have seen other divers work below for 10 and 12 consecutive hours, groveling in a world they do not altogether fit. When the sea is in its most quixotic moments, even with 25 pounds of lead around them the divers are tossed to and fro, clumsy dolls struggling where angelfish drift serenely. In the current that scours the bottom, where scavenging goatfish move easily along through the silt, the divers must fritter away valuable air wrestling to hold the cumbersome dredging equipment in position. When the divers return to the surface after a long day, their skin is shriveled and their bodies shake in the evening wind. They curse their own inadequacy and the whole enterprise, but before they are done shivering and cursing they start laying plans for tomorrow's work.

The blue hole is a very contagious place. The man who gets a case of wreck fever there usually does not recover. Most of the divers who have labored futilely in the hole itch to return and try again. Many have gone back, some of them three and four times. The man responsible for the contagion—the Typhoid Mary of the epidemic, as it were—is 54-year-old Art McKee, the director of the Museum of Sunken Treasure in the Florida Keys. He first worked in the blue hole in 1955, and has been there four times in all. On his first three tries McKee and his companions were plagued by motor failure, dragging anchors, swamping, foul weather and bad air, heavy seas and tides, injury, sickness and sharp arguments fomented by charges and countercharges of illegal activity—in short, the routine troubles that wreck hunters come to expect. At the end of his fourth search on Banner Reef, when the rest of the crew was obliged to quit the expedition boat in Jamaica because of emergencies at home, McKee rode out a hurricane alone and made it singlehanded in the 110-foot boat to Grand Cayman, where he succeeded in hiring on a navigator. The second day out of Grand Cayman, while wallowing in a storm with seas abeam, McKee was thrown across the deck, breaking three ribs. Shortly thereafter the navigator ran the boat aground on Cabo Real Reef southwest of Cuba. Although McKee managed to back the boat off this near disaster, it was taking on so much water that the U.S. Coast Guard mercifully parachuted emergency pumping gear. With this assist, McKee made it safely back to the Florida Keys, where the emergency gear exploded, burning the ship to the waterline. Although he has had a good bit of the worst of it, McKee still insists that someday he will find valuable treasure in or around the blue hole. If an owl and a pussycat set out for Banner Reef tomorrow in a pea-green pram, Art McKee would join them.

McKee has been exploring wrecks for 27 years. At this point in his life the fever burns constantly in him, and his resistance to it is unquestionably low. In contrast, consider the case of 65-year-old Gordon Patton, a gentle, gracious and presumably sane man, who did not feel the hot flush of wreck fever until recently. Patton first put on diving gear at 58, and it was only four years ago that he looked down on the coarse forms of cannons and ballast rock on Banner Reef. In and out of the water, in calm and angry times, Patton moves with the deliberate competence of a loggerhead turtle. He has led a normal, respectable life as a teacher, an education administrator and able businessman, but in his attachment to the wreck in the blue hole he is one of the giddiest. At one time or another, Patton has spent two months on Banner Reef and another two months getting there, or trying to. In 1961, when I went to Banner Reef as a member of the first big expedition to search it, Patton was along. That expedition broke up on the island of Grand Cayman—where all hands were detained three days while the local administrators investigated various claims of mutiny and barratry—and the last I saw of Patton he was sitting quietly, polishing crucifixes and religious medals found in the blue hole.

In April of 1962, 10 months after his first visit to the reef, Patton set out from Port Everglades, Fla. in his 52-foot boat Pisces, in the company of six other wreck expeditioners. While running the Windward Passage during a dangerous night of 25-foot seas, the helmsman took his bearings off a false light and ran onto a reef near the old town of Baracoa on the north Cuban coast. The boat went down in eight minutes. During an hour-and-a-half struggle to reach shore, Patton was bitten by a shark. All seven expeditioners spent the next day at a Cuban fort, in the custody of a second lieutenant who wanted to shoot them and a first lieutenant who was undecided. Cuban divers searched the remains of Patton's boat and found that it truly was loaded with salvage equipment. Thereafter the wreck hunters were treated very decently by the Cubans until passage home could be arranged.

Early this winter I met Patton again. A skilled wreck digger named Norman Scott was leading the most recent big expedition to Banner Reef. I joined up for the final two weeks of work, and there in the cabin next to mine was Gordon Patton, quietly cleaning and polishing a new haul of artifacts.

"You here again, Patton?" I asked. "How could you possibly be so damn dumb?"

"Now, son, please don't scold me," he answered gently. "I can't help myself. I'm just like a fly on a rotten banana. Shoo me off, and I keep coming back."

Gordon Patton insists that he will go back to Banner Reef again and again until he has identified the ship in the blue hole. Curiously, the first wreck hunters who probed the hole 10 years ago thought they knew. In August of 1730 a capital Spanish ship, officially called Nuestra Se√±ora del Carmen but commonly called La Genovésa, sailed for Spain from Cartagena with $3 million worth of gold and silver. While northbound in the Caribbean the Genovésa was carried eastward, off course, by the fringe winds of a hurricane. Then, when the storm abated, reaching westward to make its original mark, the Genovésa ran onto Banner Reef, or onto one of the other shoals in the chain, which the Spaniards of that day called Serpent Shoals.

It was the Genovésa's. treasure that first attracted divers to the blue hole. And still today they dig on and on, even though the farther they dig the less it seems that the wreck is the gold ship. To date, 17 cannons have been found in the blue hole and on the reef crest around it, but all these guns, as well as the solid balls and canister shot lying with them, are smaller than one would expect on a revenue ship carrying treasure back to Spain. Divers have found a profusion of knife blades, ivory combs, needles, crucifixes and religious medals—items that were obviously made in the Old World for trade in the New. Because of this cargo, it can be argued that the wreck in the hole was not a revenue ship at all, or at least that it was not bound back for Spain at the time; yet, strangely, 64 years ago Cayman Islanders who were scrounging the area for scrap brass did find about $6,000 in gold bars and coins near the southwest edge of the blue hole. Three times in the past three years divers have dynamited this same southwest edge, but where the old brass hunters found gold the modern gold hunters have found only brass.

The ivory combs recovered from the wreckage in the hole are identical to combs found in the remains of El Matancero, a Spanish merchant ship that sank off Mexico in 1742, but none of the 16 different crucifixes and religious medals recovered from the hole is like any of the 120 different crucifixes and medals found on the Matancero. Many of the artifacts found in the Banner Reef hole are badly bent, battered and broken, suggesting that the ship sank while the force of a storm was still upon it. Yet, here and there, buried under timbers or lying loose in the sand, rope has been discovered still neatly coiled and fragile objects have been uncovered intact, suggesting a quiet end. Because there is so much contradictory evidence, some divers believe that the remains of two old ships lie together in the hole, and this is altogether possible.

Of all the fragments taken from the blue hole throughout the past 10 years, only one tells anything for certain about the wreckage there. In the welter of religious medals brought up by divers of the expedition this past winter, there was one showing the profile of St. Rose of Lima, who lived an ascetic, near-masochistic life in the early 17th century. St. Rose of Lima was not canonized until 1671; thus, for certain, some of the wreckage in the blue hole dates no earlier than that.

The expedition that found this one significant medal was sponsored by a Fort Worth oilman, F. Kirk Johnson Jr., who, though a novice on the Banner Reef scene, has a certified curiosity—in 1957 he led an expedition into the Himalayas to search for the Abominable Snowman. As long as men of such curiosity are attracted to it, the ship in the blue hole will be under assault, its secrets threatened. Someday, perhaps, divers will bring back a bright haul of gold, or at least will learn the identity of the ship, but I doubt if either of these prospects is what really keeps most of them groveling in the rubble of Banner Reef. Many of them dig on out there simply because it is a stimulating place to gamble. The blue hole on Banner Reef is still a wide-open joint outside the jurisdiction of all the silly governments of men. God still deals the cards there, and the game is free of kibitzers. On that count, for sure, it is a place worth visiting.

This past winter, in the last hour of my last afternoon on Banner Reef, 20 black frigate birds came from the east, like dark messengers from the past, and hung in the sky over the expedition boat. They remained there for 20 minutes, resting in the wave of air thrown up by the ship. As I sat on the afterdeck, sometimes watching the birds, sometimes picking at the rust and coral in the cuts on my feet, a large moth lit beside me. In another moment a swallow swooped down from somewhere, seized the moth, subdued it and settled on the deck between my legs to eat it. What was a moth doing on Banner Reef? Why had it traveled so far into the sea wind? What was a swallow doing so far from the eaves and mudbanks of its ordinary life? For that matter, why was I on Banner Reef? I cannot say. I am merely grateful that there are such places left to go.

PHOTO PHOTOAs with these crosses, most items found on Banner Reef are barely recognizable until the coral crust is removed in acid baths. PHOTOAt work in the blue hole, divers use a hydraulic dredge to suck tons of sand and silt away from the remains of the wreck. PHOTOArt McKee, first diver to work the old wreck, has never found the gold he seeks, but he has recovered valuable objects, such as the decorative bronze dagger handle he holds here. PHOTOGordon Patton was a happily retired businessman. Then he began risking his life at the blue hole.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)