- HAVANA, Cuba - Barely touched
since the colonial era of piracy and shipwrecks, sea bottoms around Cuba
are an underwater fantasy world promising treasure-laden sunken ships,
insights into times gone by - and maybe even a lost city.
- Once a hub for shipments of gold, silver and other
from New World to Old, the Caribbean island,s waters likely hide billions
of dollars, worth of treasure from hundreds of ships that sank after
reefs, storms or pirates.
- But that is not all that tempts foreign companies, which,
in a joint venture with President Fidel Castro,s government, are beginning
an unprecedented, systematic search of one of the world,s most-fascinating,
least-explored undersea regions.
- As well as gold-laden Spanish galleons, important secrets
and insights into regional history, global environment trends, ancient
geography and marine science also lurk in the depths.
- "It,s a new frontier, Soviet-born Canadian ocean
engineer Paulina Zelitsky enthused as she pored over video images of
seafloor taken by underwater robots.
- "We are the first people ever to see the bottom
of Cuban waters over 50 meters, said Zelitsky, president of Canada-based
Advanced Digital Communications. "It,s so exciting. We are discovering
the influence of currents on global climate, volcanoes, the history of
formation of Caribbean islands, numerous historic wrecks and even possibly
a sunken city built in the pre-classic period and populated by an advanced
civilization similar to the early Teotihuacan culture of Yucatan.
- ADC, the heavyweight among four foreign exploration firms
here, was testing its deep-water equipment off Havana Bay late last year
when its ship, Ulises, found the century-old wreck of the battleship Maine
while surveying the seabed.
- The ship blew up mysteriously in 1898, killing 260
sailors and touching off the Spanish-American War.
- ADC has also been exploring a string of underwater
about 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) deep off Cuba,s western tip, where millions
of years ago a strip of land once joined the island to Mexico,s Yucatan
- Most intriguingly, researchers using sonar equipment
have discovered, at a depth of about 2,200 feet (700-800 meters), a huge
land plateau with clear images of what appears to be urban development
partly covered by sand. From above, the shapes resemble pyramids, roads
- ADC is excited but reluctant to speculate until a joint
investigation with the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National
Society takes place early this summer.
- "It is stunning. What we see in our high-resolution
sonar images are limitless, rolling, white sand plains and, in the middle
of this beautiful white sand, there are clear manmade large-size
designs. It looks like when you fly over an urban development in a plane
and you see highways, tunnels and buildings, Zelitsky said.
- "We don,t know what it is, and we don,t have the
videotaped evidence of this yet, but we do not believe that nature is
of producing planned symmetrical architecture, unless it is a miracle,
she added in an interview at her office at Tarara, along the coast east
- ADC,s deep-water equipment includes a
ocean bottom positioning system, high-precision side-scan double-frequency
sonar, and remotely operated submarine robots. They plan to add two
to take people down.
- On the treasure trail, it has already located 700 target
sites where historic wrecks are thought to lie, and it recently videotaped
and identified three of them as large 17th-century ships with valuable
- THE BIGGER PICTURE
- Bringing up treasure will finance the project. But
said, "Our agenda is much broader. We are very anxious about global
environmental changes. Archaeology is providing us with the means to
broader scientific ocean exploration.
- The other three foreign companies " one Canadian,
one French and one South African " operate in shallower waters than
ADC. Under contracts with Cuban state partner Geomar, all the firms have
concessions to explore in different swaths of sea and would share profits
with the government.
- American companies are prohibited from participating
by the long-running U.S. embargo on the communist-run island.
- The rush of interest in Cuba,s seas is due in part to
the Castro government,s recognition that it does not have the money or
technology to carry out systematic exploration by itself, though it does
have excellent divers.
- "As you know, we have financing problems. This is
a very expensive activity. They give us technology and financing. We
historical and ocean expertise, said Eddy Fernandez, vice president of
- "These projects are very important in helping us
rescue things from history, which contribute to our national patrimony,
he added at a ceremony launching a mini-submarine used by the other
company, Toronto-based Visa Gold.
- Visa Gold, which operates in Cuba out of Havana,s Marina
Hemingway, says it has already brought up some 7,000 artifacts including
jewelry, diamonds and pistols from a brigantine called Palemon that sank
in 1839 off Cuba,s northern coast.
- The new target in Havana Bay is the Atocha y San Jose,
which sank in January 1642 while trying to reach port after fleeing storms
at sea. Like the other firms, Visa Gold combines sea exploration with
checking archives in Spain and elsewhere to establish roughly where boats
- "This is a very historic point, the mouth of Havana
Bay, the most strategic point in the New World at that time, company
Paul Frustaglio said at the launch ceremony.
- WHY CUBA?
- "Cuba is right in the center, the logical route
for all the boats." - Cesar Garcia Del Pino
- Havana,s large natural harbor and Cuba,s location as
a stopping point between Europe and mainland Latin America made the island
a natural trade hub after the arrival of 16th-century Spanish
- "Cuba is right in the center, the logical route
for all the boats, local naval historian Cesar Garcia del Pino said.
- Since boats congregated around Cuba, it was also logical
many of them should sink here thanks to piracy, poor maps and navigation
equipment, and regular storms in the Caribbean.
- "I know of about 1,600 boats from the 16th to the
20th century that went down here. Those that came from Europe were full
of merchandise and those leaving from America were carrying the products
of the region " gold, silver and so on, Del Pino said. "I
the historical value greater than the commercial value because a sunken
boat is a time capsule.
- ADC is drawing on local talent, with a mainly Cuban staff
of 50, including 14 on land and 36 on its research vessel "Ulises.
Most of its lower-tech equipment is also Cuban " including the ship,
which is rented from the government.
- While the Canadian company is proud of doing good
it also promises to make a lot of money and would like to plow some wealth
back for the general good.
- "They say there is $3 trillion of treasure lying
on the bottom of the Caribbean, and a good part of that is near to Cuba
because a good part of the wealth of the world came through Cuba, ADC
Paul Weinzweig said.
- "But you have to bear in mind that it is ill-gotten
wealth. A lot of it is the result of rape and pillage of New World
... We want to cover our costs, provide a return to shareholders, and we
also want to use a part of our personal share of returns to benefit people
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