A chance encounter with a fisherman has led one team of treasure hunters to discover what they believe is the oldest shipwreck in the Caribbean. After only diving the site (located off the Dominican Republic coast) a handful of times, the team at Deep Blue Marine has unearthed some serious treasure. At the last count Captain Billy Rawson and his crew had uncovered 700 silver coins that could be worth millions, jade figurines and even a mirrored stone that was possibly used in Shamanic rituals. Everything was in pretty good condition, despite dating back to the 1500s.
Picture by Daily Mail UK: Silver coins & ancient Mayan jewellery.
"We only started diving last autumn and haven't gone down that much because it's been the winter," said Randy Champion, vice president of the Utah-based company.
"We have just scratched the surface," he added. "All of the stuff we've found is just from mucking about really."
Although the team haven't officially confirmed which ship they are diving, Mr Champion said they had a pretty fair idea - but were keeping quiet for now.
"If it's the ship we think it is, she probably went down in a hurricane," Mr Champion said.
"We have looked at the prevailing currents and wind directions in archives and found a cannon and ballast stone on the wreck that was all going in the wrong direction. 'That suggests it was probably a hurricane as winds go counter clockwise."
The Blue Water Marine team believe this ship was heading back to Spain with a haul of newly minted coins. It would have been quite small, around 50ft to 60ft, with 25 to 45 people on board, Mr Champion said. There were almost certainly a few dignitaries on board hitching a lift, and they wouldn't have made the journey all the way back to Spain with just 700 coins.
"There are thousands and thousands down there," Mr Champion added.
Most of the coins don't have dates on, so the team have been busy cleaning them up and trawling through reference books to identify them.
"These coins could be worth just $1,000," Mr Champion said. "But then one similar to ours sold for $132,000 the other day. 'They could be worth millions. But they aren't worth anything unless someone buys them."
One set of coins could be worth $1million on its own. The crew won't know whether they have it until the clean up operation is complete. The pre-Columbian carved jade figurines, all approximately 2in to 3in high, could be 500 years older than the wreck itself. Mr Champion said some had holes in the back side suggesting they could have been part of a head piece. This also suggests the crew of the 1500s ship probably weren't altogether that straight laced and almost certainly stole a lot of their booty.
Picture by Daily Mail UK: Coins with no dates.
"They had to satisfy the king's request, but would have taken other things too," said Mr Champion.
The crew also found what were thought to be mirrors made out of iron pyrite, but Mr Champion isn't convinced.
"Mirrors weren't common at the time," he said. "They could have been used in a Shaman-type ritual."
Deep Blue Marine are contracted by the Dominican Republic to search and uncover treasure from the wreck. They then split the proceeds 50/50. They had been surveying 42 miles of coastline with high-tech equipment in an effort to find the wreck. But they got lucky after the chance encounter with a local fisherman who sold them an old coin he had found while diving. To their astonishment the team discovered it was one of the oldest coins ever minted and knew they had found what they were looking for.
'We said to this guy: "If you show us where you found the coin you can come and work for us",' said Mr Champion.
The team are planning another dive in two weeks but it is a gruelling process as the wreck is covered in sand and coral. It takes them 12 hours to sail around the island to the dive site. They then drop anchor and take smaller boats out to dive from. It's a 6am start and the team often don't return until 8pm. They can be out there for weeks at a time.
And it's not without its dangers. "There are just as many pirates right now as there were then," Mr Champion said.
The crew have been fired upon by the Dominican Republic's Navy - 'a case of mistaken identity' - and have even been pillaged by a gang of thieves who boarded their boat in the middle of the night. They made off with thousand of dollars worth of diving equipment - despite an armed guard, provided by the government, being on board. Sharks too are always in the back of their minds, Mr Champion said, as are the treacherous diving conditions, waves and being crushed by rocks.