When Caribbean treasure hunter John Gasque first spotted it during a 1977 scuba dive south of the Bahamas, he figured the pile of coral-encrusted debris before him was nothing more than rusty pipes and other pieces of junk.

Today, after years of research, Gasque and a partner believe the debris to be the remains of the Pinta, one of the three ships that Christopher Columbus used during his 1492 voyage to the New World.

If so, the discovery undoubtedly would rank as one of the most significant historical shipwrecks ever found -- anywhere. While there are those who doubt the wreck to be the Pinta, no one will know for sure until the hulk is salvaged. And that is where the tale takes a twist.

Gasque and his partner want to have sole control over its excavation, a condition that has so upset marine archeologists concerned about the looting of ancient wrecks by treasure hunters that one of their most respected members, Dr. George Bass, is trying to wrestle control of the salvage operation from the two.

As a result, the conflict is shaping up as a classic battle between fortune seekers, who scour the seas in search of sunken treasure, and archeologists, who claim that new technology now makes it possible to gain tremendous knowledge about mankind's past from undisturbed sunken vessels.

If the wreck can be shown to be the Pinta, then Gasque and his partner Olin Frick, both of whom are based in Key West, Fla., stand to make a considerable amount of money from movie, television, book and magazine articles about the shipwreck. They already are selling one-half of 1 percent interests in their venture for $50,000 through a Washington-based company.

On the other hand, archeologists like Dr. Bass, of the Austin, Tex., based Institute of Nautical Archeology, see it as a rare opportunity to sift through the remains of a ship which evidence indicates sank almost certainly around 1500, barely eight years after the discovery of the Americas. Even more tantalizing is the faint possibility that Christopher Columbus might once have paced its decks as he challenged 15th Century man's belief in a flat world.

Until the last decade, such a confrontation most likely would never have occurred, according to Wilburn A. Cockrell, Florida's state underwater archeologist. In fact, he said, states like Florida often hired treasure hunters to find sunken vessels.

"Everyone assumed that ocean currents scattered the artifacts and ruined the sunken ships," says Cockrell. "But now, research by Dr. Bass and others has proven that immeasurable data can be gained from studying a shipwreck and its artifacts while they are in the sea."

The development of those new techniques in the 1970s, Cockrell says, coincided with a tremendous increase in the number of scuba divers using sophisticated new underwater metal detectors. Complicating the picture was a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that opened up tightly monitored federal waters to treasure hunting, he said.

"Since then," he said, "what has happened is reprehensible. We are allowing treasure hunters to loot and destroy irreplaceable maritime time capsules spanning at least six centuries."

Bass agrees. He equates allowing treasure hunters to salvage shipwrecks to allowing salesmen to "sell Mount Vernon brick by brick." He also refuses to discuss negotiations between his institute and the Turks and Caicos Islands, the island government that has jurisdiction over the shipwreck.

An island spokesman also refused to discuss whether Frick and Gasque or Bass and his institute will win an exclusive contract to salvage the wreck.

In the meantime, Gasque and Frick say they will begin salvage efforts Thanksgiving Day, claiming they have a binding contract with the island government.

Gasque first realized he had found an unusual Spanish wreck when he and Frick split open a large X-shaped object and discovered two ancient cannons.

A treasure hunter for 21 years, Frick claims he recognized the cannons as Lombards with which Spanish ships that sailed before 1500 usually were outfitted. They also discovered a crude three-inch cannon ball made out of solid lead rather than iron, which replaced lead in after 1500.

Convinced they had discovered a pre-1500 Spanish caravel, the pair contacted The National Geographic Society and asked for funding to salvage the vessel. The Society hired Dr. Eugene Lyon, a Florida historian who specializes in research at Spain's Archives of the Indies in Seville, to investigate.

Lyon refuses to reveal the contents of his report to National Geographic, but he calls the treasure hunters' claim that they had found the Pinta "pure moonshine.

"I don't know why they have to do this inject the Pinta . What they have is a very real and valuable old wreck. Why claim it is the Pinta?" Lyon said.

After receiving Lyon's report and a budget request from the treasure hunters, the National Geographic Society said it was not interested in the project.

Frick and Gasque claim Lyon did not have access to records that were discovered recently by private researchers who they hired to investigate a voyage in 1500 by Vicente Pinzon, who was a captain during the 1492 voyage with Columbus. Pinzon returned to the New World in 1500 with four ships, they say.

More importantly, they claim a researcher in Spain recently discovered a tax log written by Pinzon. It says two of his four ships capsized during a storm at a location that is described in such a way as to match the site of their wreck. The log also identifies the two sunken ships as the Pinta and the Frailia, they say.

"The most important clue though," Gasque says, "is that we have found the Frailia. Two years after we found the Pinta, we found it close by. This is the Pinta. There's no doubt in my mind."

Those clues and several others that the treasure hunters claim are proof the shipwreck is the Pinta are outlined in a brochure sent to prospective investors. Lyon's research is not mentioned in that brochure, but Mendel Peterson, the former director of underwater archeology for the Smithsonian Institution and now a marine artifacts appraiser who lives in McLean, is quoted as saying, "The suspicions that this is Pinzon's wreck are very well-founded. I have found nothing to the contrary that it is the ship which sank in 1500."

In a telephone talk, Peterson said he based that opinion on artifacts from the wreck and Lyon's research as told to him by Frick and Gasque.