Archeologists apparently won a battle with Florida treasure hunters over who will salvage a Caribbean shipwreck that may be the Pinta, one of three ships that Christopher Columbus used during his 1492 voyage to the New World.
But the scientists may have lost the war.
While the Texas-based archeologists were fighting with two Key West treasure hunters, an unidentified group of salvagers reportedly were anchored over the shipwreck site this week and may have escaped with several artifacts, according to officials of the Turks and Caicos Islands, which has jurisdiction over the shipwreck.
"This is a damn shame and a real mess," said Olin Frick who, with John Gasque, takes credit for discovering the wreck during a 1977 treasure-hunting expedition. "It looks like we will not be excavating that ship, but we damn well will take this matter to court and get satisfaction that way."
George Bass, director of the Institute of Nautical Archeology in College Station, Tex., declined to comment, on advice of the institute's attorney. It was learned, however, that Bass had recalled the institute's representative in the islands this week because the representative told authorities he had been threatened at the wreck site by a group of gun-wielding divers who were not authorized to be in the government-restricted area.
"All I can say is that we are investigating this," a spokesman for the island government said when asked about possible looting of the shipwreck. "This is very unpleasant."
Earlier this week, Frick and Gasque said they had raised enough money to start salvaging the wreck on Thanksgiving Day. They had scheduled an elaborate send-off from Key West, with a Catholic Mass performed by a local bishop.
"We've canceled all our plans to go out Thursday," said Luba Medina, the Washington spokesman for the treasure hunters and a fund-raiser who has been selling shares in the shipwreck for $50,000 each. "This is tragic."
The two treasure hunters had claimed the island government was still bound by an exclusive contract issued to them shortly after they discovered the wreck, but a government spokesman said yesterday that the contract had expired last summer because the two treasure hunters had not begun salvaging. Frick and Gasque say they plan to file a $100 million contract interference lawsuit against INA and Bass.
J.C. Strong, British governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands, which are located south of the Bahamas, said the government will sign a contract for salvaging the shipwreck within a few days with Bass and his institute, which has been competing with the treasure hunters since last summer.
"We have nothing against Mr. Frick and Mr. Gasque, but they are treasure hunters and the institute . . . is a highly regarded archeological group, more suited to excavate this shipwreck," Strong said.