Black Rats & Spanish Pearls: The Tortugas Shipwreck, History’s First Deep-Sea Excavation

Originally posted April 10, 2013 by wreckwatch, re-posted with kind permission

Port of Seville c. 1590 by Alonso Sanchez Coello

After 1,489 hours of robotic diving and 20 years of research, the results of the world’s first ever deep-sea excavation have docked with the publication of Oceans Odyssey 3. The Deep-Sea Tortugas Shipwreck, Straits of Florida: A Merchant Vessel from Spain’s 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet (Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2013).

The Tortugas wreck was found by Seahawk Deep Ocean Technology of Tampa, Florida, in 1989 at a depth of 405m in the Straits of Florida, south of the Dry Tortugas, the southernmost islands of the Florida Keys. Too deep for divers, the exact positions of 16,903 artefacts were recorded and all recovered by the Remotely-Operated Vehicle Merlin, custom-built for the project.

Tortugas Wreck - ROV Merlin These ground-breaking operations ushered in the birth of a new discipline, deep-sea shipwreck archaeology, for which the core tools of the trade were fine-tuned to enable accurate surveying using a Sonardyne acoustic long baseline positioning system, stratigraphic excavation using a customised suction dredge with integrated sediment removal and filtration (SeRF) system (prototyped from a beer keg), heavy duty lifting with two advanced Schilling manipulators, and delicate artefact recovery based on a limpet suction device innovation. All underwater activities were fully documented by video camera and three still photography cameras.

Limpet suction device recovers an olive jarThe lost ship has been identified as the Buen Jesús y Nuestra Señora del Rosario, a 117-ton Portuguese-built and Spanish-operated navio owned by Juan de la Torre Ayala. Sailing with the infamous 1622 Tierra Firme fleet returning home to Seville, the Buen Jesús plummeted into the deep 20km offshore in the ferocious hurricane of 5 October that consumed eight ships, including the Atocha and Margarita, sweeping their remains across more than 80km of the Florida Keys. Around 550 people, including 121 priests, drowned. The gold, silver, pearls, indigo, cochineal, tobacco and other products lost on all eight ships were valued at 4,000,000 pesos. The fleet’s loss was a fatal blow for debt-consumed Madrid, suffering 300% inflation since the turn of the 17th century, and its fading Golden Age.

Monitoring ROV work, Tortugas wreckUnlike the rest of the fleet, journey’s end for the Tortugas ship was Nueva Cordoba (Cumana) on the Costa de las Perlas in modern Venezuela. A daredevil itinerary took the Buen Jesús to the edge of the Spanish colonies, waters teeming with Dutch and English privateers, for three reasons: pearls, possibly contraband, tobacco and as a sign of Spanish colonial power over the Peal Coast, which had become heavily eroded by the early 17th-century by the Dutch assault on the region’s abundant salt reserves.

As a small merchant vessel operating at the opposite spectrum to the great Tierra Firme treasure ships the Atocha and Margarita celebrated off the Florida Keys, the Tortugas shipwreck ultimately provides a rare window into the everyday world of colonial Spain’s trade with the New World at the end of its Golden Age.

4-Plex with artefacts safely recovered from 405m deep. © Odyssey Marine ExplorationWhile the 39 gold bars and 1,184 silver coins represent in part profits from the outwards-shipped sale along the Pearl Coast of wine, olives, hazelnuts, iron goods, women’s shoes and a tapestry depicting the Souls of Purgatory, the 6,639 pearls harvested from the Pinctada imbricate oyster beds are split symbols of luxury and brutality. At the one extreme pearls were Europe’s hottest fashion accessory. Symbolising purity, integrity and wisdom, Venezuelan gems like those shipped on the Buen Jesús featured in resplendent paintings of the period, such as the Armada Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I (1588, by George Gower) and were coveted by King Philip II, Queen Margarita and Lucrezia Borgia alike. Venezueala’s pearls were fished from the seas under extremely harsh conditions for man and nature: 60,000 divers from the Bahamas, followed by tens of thousands of imported African slaves, were wiped out in what is considered to be the earliest recorded example by Europeans of species overkill causing ecological collapse.

Pottery, astrolabes & gold bars, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine ExplorationAt the other end of the spectrum, the Tortugas wreck turned up evidence of an industrious crewman, who idled away the hours cutting lice combs and cases from the shells of hawksbill turtles, Eretmochelys imbricate. A well-appointed shipboard merchant owned an onyx inkwell and an octagonal ivory sundial made in Nuremberg, useless for telling the time in either Seville or the Americas but a sign of high fashion. Most curious of all are two greenstone whetsones and a greenstone labret (tribal lip ornament) that hint at the presence of a Native Indian woman accompanying the ill-fated Tortugas ship. Whether as a slave or dependent is uncertain.

Pearls, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine ExplorationFinally, as Mother Nature united well-heeled merchants and slaves in tragedy, the analysis of the animal bones shows that rats ran amock beneath the feet of the ship’s cat, who licked his lips at caged blue-headed parrots. Bones from the latter are the first archaeological evidence from any shipwreck worldwide of the transport of precious birds to Spain from central and northern South America.

Blue-on-blue Seville tablewares, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine ExplorationIn an ideal world, perhaps submerged resources like these could rest untouched in the deep from the ravages of man. Idealism is a luxury that science can ill afford. Rumours about the discovery of a ‘Spanish galleon’ off the Tortugas Islands came to light in 1965, when the fishing-boat Trade Winds, trawling for shrimp, snagged its nets and pulled up three intact Spanish olive jars, metal artefacts, and pieces of ship’s rigging and wood. Numerous internationally important Spanish wrecks have been found through the same fishing impacts off Florida, Louisiana and Texas since the lucrative ‘Pink Gold’ shrimp grounds were discovered in the 1960s – with Key West at its epicentre.

Gold bars, Tortugas wreck. © Odyssey Marine ExplorationThe pioneering work of Greg Stemm, John Astley, John Morris and Dave Moore on the Tortugas shipwreck using nascent computer coding, deep-sea technology, creativity and a can-do mentality that seems to be vanishing today represents an exciting moment in the history of marine exploration.

We hope that the publication of the first of two volumes on this shipwreck, saved from trawlers hunting pink shrimp, demonstrates the potential and necessity of deep-sea projects to save key sites from harm’s way and is a matter to be celebrated.

*** Meanwhile, Wreck Watch Int. would like to hear from anyone who can suggest parallels to the Tortugas artefacts from archaeological sites and wrecks in Spain, especially for the ceramic tablewares, which were largely manufactured in Triana, Seville.

  • The Tortugas Shipwreck collection is curated by Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa, Florida, who have made key artefacts publicly available through its Virtual Museum.
  • A popular article on the Tortugas shipwreck, ‘Black Rats & Spanish Pearls Shipwrecked off the Florida Keys’ is published in the February/March 2013 issue of Current World Archaeology.
  • A preliminary scientific study of the ceramics from the Tortugas shipwreck is published in the 2012 issue of Ceramics In America, kindly made publicly available by the Chipstone Foundation.

Oceans Odyssey 3. The Deep-Sea Tortugas Shipwreck, Straits of Florida: A Merchant Vessel from Spain’s 1622 Tierra Firme Fleet, edited by Greg Stemm & Sean Kingsley, is available now at a special discounted price of £18 for a limited time only (RRP: £25). Buy online from Oxbow Books in the UK or the David Brown Book Company in the USA.

Oceans Odyssey 3

Visit the Odyssey Virtual Museum online at

Odyssey Virtual Museum

Current World Archaeology, February/March 2013

Many thanks to Sean Kingsley and all at Wreckwatch for the article.