Diving for Pirate Gold Plumbs the Depths

By Comer, Brooke | American Cinematographer, January 1994 | Go to article overview

Diving for Pirate Gold Plumbs the Depths


Comer, Brooke, American Cinematographer


A Nova documentary submerges viewers in the romantic world of treasure salvage.

Pirate gold.

The words alone evoke an electrifying thrill and suggest the alluring possibility of treasure chests buried in sand beneath clear water, half-open to reveal gleaming nuggets and sparkling jewels. Such treasure still awaits salvage at the bottom of the Caribbean Ocean. From 1492 to 1830 pirates stalked ships of the Spanish Main, loaded with plunder from the mines of Mexico and Peru, on their return voyage. Today hundreds of shallow-water shipwrecks containing untold riches are strewn across the ocean floor, hidden from the naked eye but visible to those who can afford side-scanning sonar and other high-technology devices that let treasure hunters peer beneath the sand, or high-pressure water systems that blast sand from around the wrecks to reveal substantial residue, hopefully gold.

Salvors who employ environmentally damaging technologies in their hunt for treasure face opposition from ecologists and historic preservation groups. Not only can some salvage methods harm undersea life, but plundering shipwrecks obliterates vital information that could shed new light on history, particularly that of the Spanish Main and pirate culture.

The wanton lifestyle that pirates embraced gave the swashbuckling capital of Port Royal, Jamaica the nickname of "The Sodom of the New World." The name suggests moral chaos and positions piracy as a degenerate occupation. But in the 17th Century, pirate culture offered opportunity for advancement, freedom from a rigid caste system, and even the rough equivalent of an insurance policy: pirates who lost an eye or a limb in the line of duty were compensated by extra shares of booty.

The same rewards that made piracy a viable career in its golden age (the mid-1600s through the early 1700s) make it appealing today, now that anyone with the time and means can hire an expert to find a wreck and purchase the tools to invade a site. But there are problems. Some salvors finance their expeditions through limited partnerships and private investors, hoping that their finds will sell for high prices. However, this method of salvage-and-sell makes no provision that collections be properly documented or kept intact. Are individuals getting rich at the expense of history? Who owns our cultural heritage? Can wreck sites be protected? A recent Nova documentary, Diving For Pirate Gold, addresses these issues by taking the viewer on an underwater hunt for gold, into the archives of pirate history, and into an art auction where even priceless treasures have a price.

The documentary was conceived during a conversation between New York-based producer Larry Engel, whose company, Cineworks, co-produced the piece with Boston's WGBHTV, and Nova executive editor Bill Grant. The subject of modern salvors intrigued them enough to negotiate a co-production which Engel would produce and direct under the supervision of executive producer Paula Atsell. Engel, having produced and directed such WGBH documentaries as Made in America, Living Against the Odds, Hurricane! and Tornado!, was a natural candidate for the job.

He amassed extensive research to create a flexible script for Pirate Gold. "Writing for an underwater documentary is tricky," Engel admits. "You don't know what you'll find when you get there."

Grant calls the dependence on underwater scenes the documentary's biggest challenge, but says that such sequences are more of a story obstacle than a technical obstacle. "When you're telling a story underwater," he explains, "you have to be able to see, and certain waters were too murky. Besides, this is a story about finding treasure underwater. We had to keep shooting until we found something. It's not the cheapest way to work."

Pirate Gold not only explores the Caribbean wrecks and remains of pirate history that exist there. The documentary also visits England's Portsmouth harbor, where Henry VIII's flagship, The Mary Rose, was pulled up intact after 25,000 dives in one of the most elaborate and expensive marine excavations ever, and Cape Cod, where Barry Clifford found The Whydah, the only pirate ship ever excavated in America. …

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