Help a Treasure Hunting Icon Recover 40 Cannons Looted from a Spanish Galleon off the Bahamas

by Owen James Burke

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Dr. E. Lee Spence with an Ancient Cannon – Not One From the Wreck in Question.
(Photo courtesy Dr. E. Lee Spence.)

Dr. E. Lee Spence is not a sanctimonious academic who believes he’s got the ultimate answer to everything. His interest in protecting shipwreck sites comes from the passion, awe and wonder of a twelve year old boy who read Robinson Crusoe and became so tirelessly inspired that he made it his life’s work. By 1959 he’d found his first shipwreck, and through the years, he’d go on to discover the Confederate cruiser the SS Georgiana, The USS Housatonic, Stonewall Jackson and seemingly countless others spanning thousands of miles and years. Spence also discovered the location of the CSS Hunley – the Confederate submarine that famously sank the Housatonic – years before a team led by novelist Clive Cussler definitively identified the wreck in 1995. Spence has authored and edited articles, magazines and books including Treasures of the Confederate Coast about Civil War-era shipwrecks along the southern coast of the United States. He may well have salvaged over $50 million dollars in history. Recently, it came to our attention that Spence had put the alert out on the looting of a Spanish Galleon off the Bahamas. We figured it was time for an introduction of this remarkable man to readers of thescuttle.

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Dr. E. Lee Spence found his first shipwreck when he was 12. (Photo courtesy of Dr. E. Lee Spence)

You discovered your first wreck when you were twelve years old in 1960, correct?

It was actually ’59. I found my first wreck that year. I don’t remember the month, but I know where I was living.

Do you remember the feeling?

I was elated. It’s a little kid’s dream to do stuff like that. First of all, I got interested in it partly because of reading ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ Robinson Crusoe gets shipwrecked on an island, and he dove on the wreck to bring up rum bottles, guns to fight, and so on to help him survive. I loved that story. Part of my dream was to be able to do stuff like that. I have now found cases of china, brought them up, eaten off the dinner plates, and drunk out of the beer mugs. I even brought up wine and scotch and consumed that. And so, I’ve lived my childhood dream. I’m still living it. I’m still going out and finding shipwrecks with artifacts, cannons and swords.

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Artifacts like these pieces of recovered tableware belong to the public, and if they’re not in museums, they should be left to rest where they’ve fallen. Most of these relics meet the sea’s surface with quite a bit of growth. Dr. Spence likes to eat from them, but don’t worry, he cleans them first. (Photo courtesy of Dr. E. Lee Spence)

So you’re trying to recover cannons from a looted Spanish galleon up off of the Bahamas. Have you had any good leads so far?

I’ve had quite a few people contact me who thought they saw the boat, or who thought they knew the boat, but so far no one has come up with a name of a person or a name of the boat yet. There was one lady who contacted me that was saying they were being by protected government officials in the Bahamas, but she was afraid to get involved and would not give me the name of the boat.

I imagine that’s pretty common?

I don’t know if it is or not. I hope it’s not.

What is it that’s so important about this wreck, specifically?

Anytime you move a site, archaeological information is lost. Also, let’s say that you find a cannon and you have it legal—you brought it up legally. When you sell it, you can get a much higher value for it than if you got it illegally. You obtain it illegally, you can’t say where you got it, so the system is lost, and the value is lost. Both ways it’s just lost.

And as for the looters, is there any way of bringing treasures up legally?

Well, right now, the Bahamian government is not issuing salvage licenses. Although they will allow some to be issued, they haven’t issued any for commercial purposes. I hate that, because whenever people go out there and loot, people see them and think, ‘Those are salvors doing that looting.’ And then they want to stop salvage, but what they need to do is stop looting, not stop (legally permitted) salvaging.

There’s a big difference between salvaging and looting. You can do salvage and, at the same time, do archaeology. But when you’re looting, you’re not doing any archaeology—you’re just grabbing and running. And the site that they took the cannons off of was well known. It was a site that a lot of people went to, took pictures of, and got to enjoy—now that’s been destroyed.

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Cannons from the Famed Galleon Atocha in Key West. Photo: State Archives of Florida

These kind of actions do nothing but rob the public.

Yes. And the wreck it had been salvaged properly in the first place, the salvors probably would have left the cannons behind. Most of the time commercial salvors do not pick up the cannons because they do not have enough value to make them worth raising. They’re normally left in place because that helps preserve part of the site. They will raise the cargo off of the ship—and whenever you salvage a Spanish galleon—most people don’t understand how much cargo might be on just one. There was one Galleon lost on the Florida coast that had something like 1600 chests of coins on it when it sunk. Each chest weighed about 300 pounds.

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A Recovered Spanish Coin. Photo: State Archives of Florida

Wow.

That wreck also probably had about 40 cannons on it. The cannons are very low value compared to those coins. Just one coin can be worth more than one of those cannons. Millions of coins are a whole lot better than 40 cannons—but it can take a lot more work to get at the coins because you’re having to dig and so on. The cannons are usually lying right on top of the ballast pile—they’re easy to spot and easy to bring up. But they’re not worth it if it destroys the wreck site for diving.

How does one even get a cannon restored that’s been looted? Because it has to go through electrolysis, wouldn’t that be tough to keep secret with a big cannon?

Anybody can set up electrolysis—that can done in your garage. But the cost of properly preserving an iron cannon is more than what it’s worth—more than what you could sell it for. A museum will do it because it’s going to be showing it to the public, but to do it privately it is just not worth it—especially if you’re talking about one that’s looted. What’s going to happen to those cannons is that they’ll end up being sold to a restaurant or something like that—one at a time. They’ll look good for a year and then they’ll start falling apart.

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If it’s Made of Iron, a Cannon will Soon Disintegrate if not Properly Restored after Recovery.
(Photo courtesy of Dr. E. Lee Spence)

What a shame.

They’re just ruined.

How prevalent is this kind of thing?

It’s not too common—most people know better than that. I don’t know who is really stupid enough to do it, but it does happen, and I would like to see it stop. I’d also like to see the Bahamian government start issuing the legal licenses to commercial companies—requiring them to do archaeology. I think they should allow commercial archaeology. Economically, I think it would be very good for the Bahamas.

And look what happens conversely. What’s the point?

What happens is when you don’t allow someone to do something legally, they find ways to do it illegally. Everybody loses. The laws restricting diving are passed for good purposes, but they have unintended bad consequences.

I just want to preserve the wrecks. I want to preserve the stories, the history of them, and I want to preserve, physically, as much as I can. What can be preserved on the bottom is great, but most of it can’t be preserved on the bottom—most of it is going to be (looted and) destroyed.

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Dr. Spence works the depth finder, an instrument which is paramount to all modern seafloor exploration.
(Photo courtesy of Dr. E. Lee Spence)

So, what can people do to help? Appealing to the Bahamian government seems to be the first thing that comes to my mind.

Keep their eyes open and report anything like that they’re aware of. A lot of people just keep their mouths shut—they know about something and they won’t report it because they think it’s wrong to rat on somebody. I wish they’d get away from that, because they’re actually doing the wrong thing, not the right thing.

What sort of resources are you putting in to recovering the cannons?

All I’m doing right now is trying to get the word out there. Part of posting stuff like that—maybe we’ll never catch those people, but we do put everybody on notice that you can’t do this, and we are going to try and catch you. That’s an important part of it. I’d really like to catch them, but even if we don’t, we’ve accomplished an important part of the purpose. They’re going to be a lot less likely to do it in the future if they know that people are now watching.

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“Here I am wearing a GoPro camera on my OctoMask. I have two versions of the mask and absolutely love them. And no, I am not getting paid to mention either one of them. I just want others should know how useful I think both of them are…I have taken some great video using this set up. The only reason you haven’t seen any of it, is that it was shot on some shipwrecks and, because the work is still underway, its still confidential.” — Dr. E. Lee Spence (Photo courtesy of Dr. E. Lee Spence)

It’s about trying to make people look at it rationally. A lot of people want everything left on the bottom. Well, I’ve been diving for over fifty years—I look at sites that I dove fifty years ago, and some are completely destroyed because of looting. Sites that we thought back then had reached a state of equilibrium, but fifty years later they’re greatly reduced from what they were. And in another fifty years, they’ll be even further destroyed.


You’ll be reading more about the fascinating and sometimes controversial life and times of  Dr. E. Lee Spence on The Scuttlefish soon.   — OB

Dr. E. Lee Spence is looking for about 40 missing guns from the wreck of a Spanish galleon off the Bahamas, and suspects, per usual, that they’re being sold off one by one, landing in front of a Red Lobster restaurant near you. The real pity is that not only is a this pilfering of the greater public, but these cannons are likely not receiving proper restoration, and will crumble to pieces in the coming years. (Iron that’s been undersea for hundreds of years becomes impregnated with salt, and if it doesn’t undergo submerged electrolysis to become sealed, the iron dries, rusts, and crumbles to dust in short order.) Here’s what you can do to help recover them:

Follow Dr. E. Lee Spence on Facebook and Twitter, read his article on Ethics in Underwater Archaeology, and if you have any information regarding a blue-hulled vessel unloading any cannons in or around Florida, please contact Dr. E. Lee Spence at hunleyfinder@yahoo.com.

Published works by Dr. E. Lee Spence:

Treasures of the Confederate Coast

ShipWrecks Magazine

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