Mysterious Island: Wreck of the San Pedro update
New information on the wreck of the Spanish galleon San Pedro at Catalina’s West End in the 17th century has surfaced recently, thanks to some footwork on the part of a U.S. Navy Lieutenant in San Diego.
Lt. (Junior Grade) Kevin Klemens, a training officer aboard the U.S.S. New Orleans in San Diego, recently forwarded to me a document entitled, “The Manila Galleon San Pedro: Subsequent Surveys,” written by marine archaeologist Jim Muche.
But first, some background: Regular readers of this column or those who have read my book “Mysterious Island: Catalina” will remember the installments wherein I detailed the mysteries surrounding the wreck, including the various attempts to salvage her purported vast fortune of gems, gold, ivory and other priceless artifacts of the day.
The ship sank in the waters at Arrow Point near the Isthmus in 1698 while returning from the Philippines fully loaded with treasures from the Orient. There, in the steeply sloping sands of the West End, she sat for nearly 300 years before the first attempts to salvage her precious cargo.
There was also further intrigue surrounding the ship involving Howard Hughes’ mysterious “research vessel” Glomar Explorer and its—some would say—suspicious proximity to the San Pedro while reportedly preparing for a clandestine mission to salvage the Soviet submarine Azorian in the North Pacific.
But since the update in this week’s column has little to do with this part of the story, I’ll leave that for another time.
Jim Muche and his crew were the last known people to attempt any official salvage of the sunken vessel and my first column on the subject ended with my failed attempts to contact Muche and find out just exactly what, if anything, he and his crew had found.
Enter Lt. Klemens’ document written by Muche. A great deal of the paper summarizes Muche’s various survey attempts and details the process which, little by little, they were uncovering more and more artifacts from the wreck. The first things they found were, quite logically, the larger and heavier items, including cannons and the heavy lead shot used in them.
Muche theorizes in his document that these items may have been the first to be jettisoned by the ship’s crew to prevent her from sinking. Although these artifacts had long been buried in the sand, the depressions they had left on the surface of the sand gave away their presence.
It was on the second survey in the summer of 1975 that other artifacts, namely pieces of pottery, began to reveal themselves to the marine archaeologists.
Muche describes some of these “sherds” (the proper archaeological term for pottery shards) as low-fired, unglazed red clay of “thick construction,” along with examples with amber and green-colored glazes.
The red sherds, he said, “appear to be segments of the sobremesa,” a pear-shaped table ornament that literally means “table top.”
Other discoveries included sherds similar to those found on other archaeological sites in the Philippines and an artifact that exhibited “body decoration in the form of incised lines and ridges, popular during several of the Chinese dynasties.”
Perhaps the most tantalizing discoveries were those of small “discs” believed to be made of metal that were originally thought to be coins.
The samples were so badly deteriorated and encrusted with three centuries of ocean crud that identification was next to impossible. The latest X-ray technology of the 1970s was used to try to identify these “coins” and several words became legible, including “Te Deum,” “San” and “Nobis.” The image of what was believed to be a male saint also came through.
Because of these identifications, it was determined that, rather than coins, the metallic discs were most likely religious medallions that were known to have been aboard the ship. Oh, by the way, the metal that these discs were made of, according to Muche’s report, was bronze. Sorry.
The final pages of the report amount to basically an appendix of large-scale maps of the actual dig site (no references to points on Catalina that might “give away” the location of the wreck are made, so please hold your e-mails) along with a listing of all artifacts found, their material of construction and a pair of photographs of a number of sherds and vessels.
Interestingly enough, Muche’s final conclusion in the paper reads that, “while no material has been recovered which will definitely identify the vessel as the Manila Galleon San Pedro, cumulative evidence does strengthen this belief.”
In other words, even after several seasons of diving the wreck and finding numerous artifacts, Muche was still uneasy with positively identifying the wreck as the San Pedro.
And given that, in the report, there is much mention of other areas in the site that produced “strong” magnetic readings beneath the sand—areas that weren’t explored due to state marine environmental restrictions—it’s highly unlikely that all of the material from the wreck has been discovered.
This as-yet-undiscovered material could simply be more cannon shot or religious medals.
But then again …
Jim Watson is the author of “Mysterious Island: Catalina,” available on Amazon, Kindle and in stores all over Avalon.