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Treasure Islands

Treasure Islands

TREASURE HUNTING IN THE PI

Beach vendors in the Philippines sell fridge magnets, shells, coral necklaces, fake Marlboros and anything they can to tourists. At Subic Bay I was offered American ‘silver’ dollars stamped 1797.  The coins were said to be from a ship wreck hoard recovered off Mindanao the second largest island in the Philippines. Both of us wanted them to be real but knew they were fake. Realising the game was up he dropped his price from 5,000 pesos to 500 pesos (approximately US$9). At the next beach I was pursued by grinning vendors offering more ‘silver’ dollars for 500 pesos.

To see genuine shipwreck treasure I headed over to Vasco’s Hotel & Restaurant off the Argonaut Highway at the working end of Subic Bay. The former U.S. Naval Base, northwest of Manila, was closed in 1991 after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo and the Philippine Government’s decision not to extend the lease. Today it is an industrial and commercial area designated as the Subic Bay Freeport Zone. Vasco’s has its own maritime museum and Australian owner Brian Homan showed me around. Now in his seventies Brian no longer dives but is still passionate about underwater exploration and treasure hunting. Every artifact has a story and with so many on display he switches from tale to tale as they trigger his memory. A history lesson about the Manila galleon trade is mixed up with his life story as a commercial diver, treasure hunter and hotel owner. Brian reminisces about the days he spent in Puerto Galera on Mindoro Island excitedly pointing out that the names mean ‘port of the galleons’ and ‘mine of gold’.

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On holiday in 1979 a Mexican traveller in a Manila bar told Brian about a stunning bay called Puerto Galera. Two days later he sailed in on a cattle boat. The cannons overlooking Muelle Pier caught his imagination and he became fascinated with the maritime history of the Philippines.

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Puerto Galera, Oriental Mindoro voted one of the most beautiful bays in the world in 2004 by UNESCO. (Source: Asia Divers)

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The marble cross at Muelle commemorates the sinking of the battleship Cannonero Mariveles in a storm on November 18th 1879. The battleship was despatched to protect Puerto Galera from Moro pirates who were raiding the area. A wooden cross in memory of the crew was replaced with marble in 1938.

Brian quit his job, became a professional diver and spent the next 35 years searching the islands for ship wrecks. The Philippines was then firmly under the control of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and he made his first discovery in August 1983 on the same day opposition leader Ninoy Aquino was assassinated on the tarmac at Manila International Airport. Sixty feet below the surface of the Verde Island Passage he found a native sailing ship loaded with Ming Dynasty blue and white porcelain and some half buried, coral encrusted, dragon jars. At the time Brian knew next to nothing about the story of the Manila galleons and headed off to the National Museum in Manila to report his find. Their underwater archaeology section were happy to work with him but desperately underfunded. Before Brian could teach them to scuba dive he had to teach them how to swim.

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Ming Dynasty porcelain and dragon jars on display in Vasco’s maritime museum.

Because of the scarcity of written records and lack of metal in their construction most pre-colonial wrecks were found by chance by fishermen. Antiques would appear in the showrooms of Manila dealers leaving only a small window of time before the exact location of a wreck was known and plundered by looters. Along the way Brian pioneered the diving industry in Puerto Galera, established the first dive resort on Sabang beach – Capt’n Greggs and was first to explore and document the World War 2 wrecks of Coron Bay.

Two weeks after the US withdrawal from Subic Bay Brian arrived in style at the helm of a replica Spanish galleon built by a European consortium to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of America. He docked the galleon at what is now the Subic Bay Yacht Club where it became a tourist attraction.

Wrecks that were previously off limits in the bay could now be explored and Brian was the first person licensed to run a scuba diving business. There is very little coral diving in the area due to volcanic ash fall from Mount Pinatubo but at least 19 known shipwrecks including both American and Japanese WWII vessels, a battle cruiser, cargo ships, a jet fighter, landing craft and patrol boats. The most famous is the armoured cruiser USS New York scuttled in 1941 to prevent Japanese ships from entering the bay.

The replica galleon was made from European pinewood which deteriorated and rotted in the tropical climate. Brian managed to salvage rigging, blocks and tackle and various wooden fittings that he used in the construction of his hotel. In February 2000 Vascos opened in sight of the Subic Bay Yacht Club and Subic Bay International Airport providing the opportunity to display his treasures. Previously the site was a wasteland being an abandoned coaling and re-fueling station of the U.S. Navy.

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Vascos bar with ceramics and coral encrusted Japanese rifles on display.

Through story boards and dioramas the museum tells the story of the Spanish ships known as Manila galleons that between 1565 and 1815 made an annual round trip across the Pacific between Manila and Acapulco. During this period the galleons were the sole means of communication and the economic lifeline between Spain and its Philippine colony. Their cargoes of Chinese silk, perfumes, porcelain, cotton fabric and precious stones were transported overland by mule train from Acapulco to Veracruz and then by sea to Seville, Spain. On the return voyage the galleons brought back huge quantities of Mexican silver and communications from Spain. The Spanish in Manila depended on the trade so much that when a ship was lost at sea or captured by English pirates their colony was plunged into economic depression. The importance of the trade however declined in the late 18th century as other powers began to trade directly with China.

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In the 250 years history of the Manila – Acapulco galleon trade there were at least 400 recorded voyages, with 59 shipwrecks, 41 of which occurred in Philippine waters. A combination of typhoons, uncharted waters and strong tidal currents made the Cavite – Verde Island Passage – San Bernardino Strait (marked by the dotted line) the most dangerous section. During the Spanish colonial period shipwrecks and their economic impact were regarded as major disasters alongside earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

Brian ends his tour in the office where his most valuable finds are locked away. The last thing he shows me is a typed notebook with co-ordinates, manifest details and the names of unrecovered wrecks lying on the seabed close to Vigan on the west coast of Luzon. The notebook was left to him by an old shipmate who studied Medieval Spanish so that he could follow up leads in museums and libraries across the world. Like the old prospector Howard in the movie – ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’ Brian becomes animated by the thought of one final treasure hunt. His stories have been polished over many years of telling and he concludes:

“I’ve been doing what I’ve loved since I was a teenager. I am so committed to the sea and diving that I lost two good wives…I’ve slowed down as I don’t want to lose my third wife”.

Approved by the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority Brian now plants replica cannons, anchors and other parts of Spanish galleons on the seabed as an artificial reef to attract marine life, protect the environment and promote tourism. His treasure charts he declares are freely available to anyone willing to follow in his footsteps.

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Muelle Cultural Heritage Park, Puerto Galera.

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A quiet corner overlooking the bay.

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Vascos, Subic Bay.

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Brian Homan2

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Snapshots of a treasure hunter. (Source: Kevin Hamdorf Photography)