top of page

On the Trail of the 1733 Galleon Fleet

The below article was written by our close friend and fellow treasure hunter John Mattera. If you get the chance read the book that he is in along with Diver / Treasure Hunter John Chatterton "Pirate Hunters" written by Robert Kurson. After reading Johns article I wanted to share this with the world because as a treasure hunter this is how we all feel. Now enjoy

"On the Trail of the 1733 Galleon Fleet"

Marc Littleton Divemaster / Treasure Hunter.

Pirate Hunters

In a time when the depths of the ocean were still a mystery to all but a few, before we knew of the damaging effect the very air we breathe could have on long submerged artifacts, two words were whispered in the Florida Keys. Two words that have shaken man’s knees since just after the dawn of civilization ...

Treasure Found!

Back when Mendel Peterson, the undisputed father of underwater archeology, was just out of high school and Sir Robert Marx was still an apprentice juvenile delinquent one step ahead of the law, underwater exploration remained a fantasy for most. All-but-forgotten pioneers like Art McKee explored the remains of lost galleons, one of the first men to walk among the timbers recovering innumerable artifacts that astounded the world. Unfortunately, in the dark ages of marine salvage, it was a “learn as you go” program and ignorance was the order of the day. Evidence of misdeeds-gone-by can be seen withering away in front of restaurants all the way up and down the US 1 corridor between Key Largo and Marathon. There can be little doubt when one is travelling down the narrow causeway from one Key to the next that you have landed in a shipwreck-rich environment. It was Bob Weller who first called this stretch “Galleon Alley.” Once-mighty cannons crumbling away on the side of the road, great anchors of ships long forgotten, disintegrating under the hot Florida sun, holding nothing more than rust stains in place on the pavement below. Somber testimony to what we had not known about artifact preservation. It is a sad testimony of a bygone era, one that has tainted my chosen profession until this day. The conscientious among us in the field of underwater exploration practice the science of commercial archeology. It falls somewhere between the world of tenured armchair adventurers and the old-time treasure hunters of days past. The world of academia protests, challenging the commercial enterprise, but having no real remedy for the problem at hand. The academic community is a culture onto itself. But even as a collective group they do not possess the financial wherewithal to recover and preserve artifacts to any extent that will make a difference save for their own publishing desires. While treasure hunting, which has had a long and glorious history but little in the way of conscience, as our rusting monuments along US 1 testify, is also not the answer. As the excesses and ignorance of our past have tainted the business of undersea exploration. The hucksters and charlatans that plagued the industry since before the height of the Spanish Empire up to and continuing today haven’t helped the situation. Treasure Trove hunting had almost always been licensed and taxed by the ruling powers, and was at one time considered a noble profession. Its roots can be traced back to the very beginning of the Roman Empire, as armies marched and conquered, kingdoms were overturned, and fortunes looted. As there were not very many banks along the Appian Way, it was common practice to secrete treasure in various locations. Due to the nature of the business of pillaging and conquering, many a vanquisher met his end all too soon thereby leaving untold treasures left un-recovered. This started a boom business throughout England and Europe, which was practiced for centuries. Enter the Spanish Empire, actually not yet an empire, more a fledgling monarchy only recently independent from 781 years of Muslim rule. What made it an empire, or for that matter ensured its very survival, was treasure itself. Not the business of treasure troving; more the business of treasure taking, doing so at the point of a sword or the end of an arabesque. Moving hordes of ill-gotten gains across the great oceans spurred the modern treasure hunting we know today, as many of the great treasure-laden vessels of the Spanish Empire met their tragic end long before the safety of the harbor of Cadiz. While I don’t profess to know when the desire to recover sunken treasure seeped into mainstream thinking, we do know Leonardo DiVinci was an early designer of underwater machines to recover treasure lost by the Romans.

Even before that, Alexander the Great used primitive diving bells to recover lost treasure. The first well-documented successful treasure story of a semi-modern era started with one of my heroes, William Phipps in 1688, and the successful recovery of over 100 tons of silver from the Nuestra Senora de la pura y limpia Concepcion. Phipps proved that vast fortunes could be recovered from the ocean depths, thereby making himself and his partners rich beyond belief.

This is where I come in, I love history, I’m not opposed to turning a profit, and I have a pair of swim fins. While this may be an oversimplification, it is accurate. So myself, and my partner John Chatterton, along with a group of able-bodied pirates, practice the art and science of “Commercial Archeology.”

We recover what is conservable and bring history alive, digging it from the sand and chipping it from under the coral as we go.

Commercial archeology is a solid answer to the many problems pertaining to disappearing ships of historical significance. Without a doubt it remains one of the least understood business concepts in today’s quest for underwater answers. Commercial archeology is the conscious exploration and recovery of long-unclaimed remnants of our past. The practice of responsible commercial salvage is the only viable way we can uncover the trail of the people who have gone before us with any degree of success.

Artifacts that, if left alone in situ, would be of benefit to no one and would continue to succumb to time and the elements of the ocean.

Properly undertaken, artifacts are recovered and preserved; some are donated or loaned to schools and museums, others are auctioned to pay for the recovery process and fill collections both public and private. Providing someone without the means of salvaging an item on their own the opportunity to possess a cherished objet d'art. Working with governments, states and museums to responsibly document and recover artifacts and in many cases recognizing that certain areas or shipwrecks should be left in situ and not disturbed. Artifacts that cannot be preserved properly should remain where they are found.

One such place that is open to exploration but closed to salvage is “Galleon Alley” or officially known as the “Upper Keys Marine Sanctuary,” a stretch of coastline littered with 11 known shipwrecks from the heyday of Spanish rule.

For me this area only meant one thing: “Fellow students of marine exploration, school is now in session!”

On Friday the 13th of July in the year of our lord 1733, the New Spain fleet under the command of Lieutenant-General Rodrigo de Torres y Morales left Havana harbor en-route to Spain loaded with 12,286,253 pesos of registered specie. Given the notoriety of the day, he should have better planned his departure. As a short day later Torres was faced with the onset of the storm of his life –bad timing! He ordered the ships in his fleet to beat sail back to Havana. Unfortunately most of the accompanying captains did not get the memo or could not comply in time; by the evening of the 15th most of his ships, including the Almirante and the Capitana, were driven up onto or over the stretch reefs that make up the spectacular upper Florida Keys. The Almirante lay with its decks awash just inside the reef-line, north of present day Matecumbe key. The Almirante and the Capitana, being the most heavily armed, also carried the vast majority of the King’s treasure and were the rear guard and the vanguard respectively. Four of the ships in the fleet made it back to Havana, and one made it all the way home to Spain. Fortunately for most of the people on board, the ships ground in shallow water, close to shore either inside or just outside of the reefs. This afforded the survivors the greatest opportunity to escape with their lives. Setting up camps along 80 miles of the Florida coastline, the first order of business was to aid the survivors and then to facilitate the King’s salvage operation. Salvage they did, so successfully in fact that the recovery of treasure was more than the fleet was carrying according to the manifest. This is something we have come to accept in the commercial salvage business as a common occurrence. Treasure in fact on most vessels could be two or three times greater than the declared amount, as cheating on one’s taxes seemed to be a very old and time-enduring tradition. Worked silver was un-taxable, as was a portion of gold fashioned into jewelry; these items rarely made the kings registry. However, the merchant tax scammers of the day were quite inventive in some of their methods. Fashioning nails and fittings out of gold or silver or secreting treasure in cannons and barrels. Driving gold and silver wedges into the seams of the ship itself. All ships returning to the old realm, whether registered treasure transports or not, carried treasure on board.

Due to the shallow depth of the wreck sites, recovery while difficult and time consuming was not an insurmountable task. Over the course of many months, the ships were burned to the water line to expose the lower decks and breath-hold divers, stout lines, hooks, and grapples did the work. Over time the Spanish salvage-master Sanchez Duran felt that they exhausted their efforts on the wrecks, folded up the camps, and the Spanish went on their way. The 1733 treasure fleet slipped through the cracks of history…

Until the summer of 1938 when a fisherman named Reggie Roberts drew the attention of a hard-hat diver and brought him to look at what he believed was an interesting discovery; when Art McKee dropped 27 feet onto the remains of the Capitana, his whole world and mine changed forever.

What McKee was about to find out was that no matter who had performed the salvage in those bygone days, they always left quite a bit behind. The ocean bottom is one large piece of real estate. Wind, storms, waves, shifting sands, swirling eddies, currents, and countless other acts of nature spread and conceal lost artifacts beyond the immediate grasp of man; that’s just the way it is.

With a long and illustrious career in the early days of the treasure business, McKee could truly be called the modern-day father of the business. During his many years of shipwreck hunting, through his doors passed many a treasure-hunting hopeful in search of the secrets of success. Some of these men were noteworthy keepers of the flame, others where less than honorable and negated the opportunity to live up to the McKee legend. The first time I dove the 1733 wrecks was on my own many years ago; the second time, in the late 80’s, was a similar learn-as-you-go endeavor. The third time being the charm, it was my great fortune to share the opportunity to re-explore these fabled wrecks with one of the McKee faithful: a most notable pirate of the first order, the legendary treasure finder Captain Carl Fismer.

In a sometimes gruff, often humorous manner, Captain Fizz, as he is known to his friends and fans explains the nuances of the plate fleet in its final resting place. Sometimes in tones so low you are forced to lean over the table to catch his words. Probably befitting as we are speaking of treasure. It’s about this time when I have one of those rare epiphanies so often described in cartoons with a picture of a light bulb over my head.

“Hey Fizz, want to go diving?”

The slow smile that crossed the Captain’s lips said it all.

Plans were set tanks were filled and together with John Chatterton and our usual cast of characters we set out on a crystal clear weekday morning in search of knowledge. As we left the dock that morning I thought we where the only souls in the world or at least on the ocean. Our exploration in solitude was befitting, there was not another vessel as far as the Atlantic could see.

The Capitana, also known as “El Rubi,” the flagship of the 1733 treasure fleet, commanded by Don Balthesar de la Torre, met her end on the reef line just North of Matecumbe Key, when she ran aground, skidded over the reef, turned side-too, to the oncoming sea, flooded and sank. Miraculously almost everyone on board survived. When she went down, she carried more than two thousand boxes of gold and silver bullion and coins and hundreds of copper ingots.

Today her remains, while mostly covered in sand with small patches of sea grass, lie in 20 feet of water off Tavernia Key. She lies in the coordinates 24.55.491’N- 80.30.891W. Shallow depressions dot the wreck site, indications of past excavations. One of the least scenic of the 1733 dives, however it more than makes up for it in historical significance and lessons learned. As I said before, “school is in session,” anytime we take away from a wreck more knowledge than we splashed with, it is a good day.

Just North, off Tavernia Key in 30 feet of water is the San Jose or Saint Joseph. She can be found at 24.56.919N- 80.29.234W. Nicknamed “El Duque,” this New-England built ship was captained by Cristobal Fernandez Franco. El Duque met her end on the sandbars that stretch into modern day Hawk Channel. She lies mostly buried in the sand with occasional timbers and ballast stone marking her gravesite. Discovered in 1968, she surrendered many artifacts as well as her 23 cannon. Before she was named an underwater marine sanctuary.

Nuestra Senora de Balvaneda, nicknamed “El Infante,” is one of the most popular dives of the marine sanctuary; she lies at 24.56.556N 80.28.531W in 20 feet of exceptionally clear water on the outer reef; protected by coral she remains a visible and pretty dive site. A very large ballast pile and her lower ship timbers make her a very dramatic scene for the interested diver. Genoese built and nine years old when she sank, El Infante was one of the biggest ships in the fleet; she carried 60 cannons and 190 chests of silver coins as well as a huge cargo of Chinese porcelain and Guadalajara ware.

Of the three dives we had made El Infante was far and away my favorite site. She is an easy dive that can be completed by any novice explorer with a few dives under their weight belt. The old girl is picturesque and offers the student of Colonial shipwrecks a glimpse into what a galleon might look like after a few hundred years on the bottom.

As we where climbing from the last of our gear at the end of our dive day, I could feel the boat ease forward slightly as the throttles were pushed forward. Fizz settled into the seat next to me and leaned over as if to whisper, while handing me a very cold bottle of beer still dripping with ice from the cooler.

“You know the best part about this story?” Captain Fizz asked.

A long time ago, I learned to listen instead of guess, so I gave the most inquisitive look that I could manage as I took a deep pull from the bottle.

“The San Fernando and Floridina are still out here somewhere, never touched then or now, that’s a dive I want to make.”

“Me too.”

John Mattera

As you can see treasure hunting gets in your blood. There is much more to be found. Join us on one of our Sunken Treasure Workshops to learn more about how you can get involved. Right now we are working the 1715 Fleet this season and hope to find the Queens Jewels that manys others have searched for over the years... this may be our year!

bottom of page