HAVANA -- A golden statue of Neptune, bronze forks and spoons, elaborate glass perfume bottles and a handful of musket balls were among artifacts that treasure hunters rescued from their first shipwreck find off Cuba's coast.
Laid out carefully on a little table at the Hemingway Marina's Nautical Club in western Havana, the artifacts displayed earlier this year were just a small sampling of what the Canadian firm Visa Gold Explorations Inc. of Toronto and other treasure seekers hope to pull from shipwrecks in coming years.
Visa Gold of Toronto was the first of five companies now working in partnership with Fidel Castro's government to find and excavate some of the hundreds of shipwrecks of historical and commercial value believed to dot the ocean floor around the island.
"I estimated that the shipwrecks that occurred off Cuba over a period of 250 years had cargoes worth more than $200 billion," said K. Sethu Raman, Visa Gold director and founder. "But there has never been a serious effort to look for them before."
Visa Gold made the first discovery of one such shipwreck last year, the Palemon, a Spanish Brigantine that went down off the northern coast of Cuba in 1839.
None of the other foreign exploration firms operating here has yet made a similar find.
Advanced Digital Communications, also of Canada, last year discovered the wreck of the USS Maine, whose mysterious explosion more than a century ago set off the Spanish-American war. But the wreck is a protected war memorial and artifacts cannot be removed from the site.
Strange shapes found
The Advanced Digital Communications team has also said that it has discovered a strange collection of megalithic shapes at 2,310 feet deep off the westernmost tip of Cuba that look like an urban setting. But they admit more investigation is necessary to ascertain what the shapes are.
Visa Gold displayed some of the 7,000 artifacts rescued from the Palemon during a ceremony celebrating the cataloguing and separation of the items by Cuba's National Patrimony experts.
"This is definitely a historical event," Canadian Ambassador Michael Small told the gathering.
Under its contract with Cuba, Visa Gold will evenly split the artifacts with the government. A small sampling of the artifacts rescued from the Palemon traveled to Canada earlier this year for exhibition.
"We have not yet fully evaluated the worth of the wreck but we don't think it's a lot," said Raman. The value of the Palemon wreck, he said, was that it was the first.
Because of the huge amount of ocean traffic to and from Cuba starting in the 16th century, experts believe there are hundreds of shipwrecks still undiscovered in the waters all around the island.
"We feel that we have several other possibilities for more finds next year," Visa Gold President Paul Frustaglio said.