On the hunt for pirate 'treasure'
It seemed an odd invitation. Would I like to go hunting pirates? Not the kind of modern day pirates that hijack oil tankers off the African coast, more along the lines of Captain Jack Sparrow or Long John Silver -- the kind that existed in the 17th century.
More specifically, Rick Stanley of Ocean Quest Adventures was asking me if I'd like to be part of an underwater search for the wreck of a pirate ship.
But what made the invitation peculiar was that he wasn't planning this underwater hunt in the Caribbean -- where the pirates Hollywood has glorified used to hang out -- he was planning on searching in Conception Bay in Newfoundland.
I'd never known pirates existed in Newfoundland. But that all changed after I talked to Jason Crummey, author of "Pirates of Newfoundland." He told me that some of the greatest pirates of all time based themselves on "The Rock." Some of them he said were superstars of their day.
"These people, when they were alive, were lionized, lionized like Elvis is lionized now. Or a popular pop band," said Crummy.
Take the pirate Peter Easton. His nickname was The Pirate Admiral and from his safe haven in Newfoundland, Easton, a former British navel officer who turned pirate, preyed mercilessly on Dutch, Spanish and French shipping.
According to Crummey, eventually the French had had enough. They sent a fleet of warships into Conception Bay to force Easton out of his lair. When the fleet arrived, like a scene from a classic pirate movie, Easton sailed out to meet them and drove the flagship of the French fleet -- the St. Malo -- on to a reef at the mouth of the bay. It was a spectacular victory, but not his last, according to Crummey.
"He captured three Spanish treasure ships off the Strait of Gibraltar in about 1615. It was the largest pirate heist in world history at that time," said Crummey, worth the equivalent of $50 million today.
The search begins
So I'm convinced. But where do we start? As we head out on our expedition there isn't much to go on. According to the historical records he sank the French flagship on Easton's Rock offshore from the village of Harbour Grace. Stanley and his crew run a magnetometer past the rocks to look for big pieces of metal -- for example, old cannons which would signal a ship wreck.
When that doesn't work the exploration team tries a sidescan sonar search, to find anything that looks like an old wooden keel. Once again they have no luck. The problem is that the underwater terrain is too broken up to identify anything definitively as a shipwreck. So they decide to search the bottom in person.
I suit up alongside three other divers and join the search. It's no easy task. Searching for cannons in these underwater conditions is like crawling around an area the size of a football field, partly blindfolded, looking for something that might be no bigger than a short length of drain pipe. We check every nook and cranny but eventually head for the surface empty handed. Disappointed, we head for port.
But Day Two of the search starts full of promise. Bill Flaherty, the skipper of the dive boat, has found a local diver named Greg Harvey who says he might be able to help. Harvey tells the team he knows an underwater location where they may be swivel guns -- small guns mounted on pirate ships to repel boarders. Greg also knows about an anchor that could have come from the 17th century and an almost intact amphora -- these were clay jugs used to store oil and wine.
This time we're diving in Conception Harbour and once on site, we dive right into the water. It doesn't take more than a few minutes, despite the poor visibility, to find the anchor. It's so heavily encrusted it's barely recognizable. And twenty minutes later, we find the amphora jug. It's possible the jug came from a pirate ship. But despite searching until we're frozen from the cold water and almost out of air we find no trace of the swivel guns and no pirate shipwrecks
An offer of help
Two days of searching and so far we have little to show. It's time to get some help. Bill remembers that 25 years ago, other people explored these waters: a group called the Newfoundland Marine Archeology Society, whose president was Janette Ginns. On the final day of the expedition, Rick Stanley convinces Jeanette and one of her old colleagues, David Roberts, to guide us to a site near Port Kirwin that she thinks might be the final resting place of a pirate ship.
"We did find seven guns," recounts Jeanette, recalling her dives of a quarter century ago. "Three of those guns were seven-and-a-half to eight-feet long. And there were and a couple of smaller ones."
That would be too heavy armament for a fishing boat or supply vessel, so I asked her point blank, could this be a pirate ship? "It could certainly be."
And could this nearly forgotten shipwreck be part of Easton's pirate fleet? Hopes run high. But it's been 25 years since David and Jeanette found the wreck. They're not certain they can find it again.
We head to the location and dive right in. As soon as we submerge we realize we're in for a tough search. The visibility is less than three meters. And we've got to go deep to find the wreck. Thick seaweed covers the bottom and after several passes the divers find nothing. But we refuse to give up.
After a short break we decide to try a second dive. This time David leads the team to the bottom. And suddenly looming out of the underwater murk appears the encrusted shape of an old muzzle-loading cannon. Then another and another, scattered across the bottom like discarded toys. The guns are from the right time period, they're different sizes -- pirates picked up guns anywhere they could get them -- and this vessel was heavily armed. It all adds up to suggest that this is probably the wreck of a pirate ship.
It's an astonishing experience to actually see and lightly touch something that was once used by pirates 400 years ago. It's a chapter of Canada's history I had no idea existed.
As Bill Flaherty says, "There's so much history here untouched, so many people unaware of what's here in their doorstep."