Engineer Plans Big Treasure Hunt
Walt Disney called his engineers “imagineers.” Now British mechanical engineer and archaeologist Shaun Whitehead is calling himself a “creationeer.” He says its a special combination of creativity and engineering. And its taken him to great heights and great depths. His company Scoutek is currently using snake-like robots, sonic surveyors and micro beetles to wriggle their way through passages in the Great Pyramid of Giza in search of archaeological finds. He’s designed a balloon aerobot to use on Mars and a landing rover for the moon.
Now this entrepreneurial adventurer is planning a scientific expedition to a remote island in the Pacific Ocean where he’ll be trying to unearth gold, diamonds and other pirate booty. If it sounds like a real life treasure hunt that’s because it is.
In November a team of British, German and Costa Rican explorers and scientists will use cutting-edge technology to try to find the lost Treasure of Lima. The team will be looking for evidence that Captain William Thompson, a British trader-turned-pirate, stashed 113 gold religious statues, one a life-size Virgin Mary, 200 chests of jewels, 273 swords with jewelled hilts, 1,000 diamonds, solid gold crowns, 150 chalices and hundreds of gold and silver bars on the uninhabited Cocos Island, known locally as Isla del Coco (or Coconut Island.)
This isn’t the first attempt to recover the fabled treasure. Franklin Roosevelt, Errol Flynn, Sir Malcolm Campbell, and German explorer August Gissler — who spent almost 20 years living on the island and came back with just six gold coins — have all searched the island, digging up beaches and forests in search of the stolen loot.
In 1821 Lima’s viceroy asked Thompson to provide safe passage of the treasure to Mexico when he thought Chile was about to invade. En route Thompson’s crew killed the viceroy’s men and headed for Cocos Island. When the Spanish fleet caught up with the pirate Thompson, they killed his crew and kept Thompson and his second in command alive to lead them to the now-hidden treasure. But the story goes that Thompson and his lieutenant escaped to Cocos Island and were picked up by a passing ship about a year later and without their treasure.
As far as anyone is concerned it’s still on Cocos Island somewhere. But Robert Louis Stevenson, having heard part of the story when writing Treasure Island, thought that setting his story in the Caribbean where there was real buried treasure was more plausible. But the rumors persist that the treasure is still on Cocos Island somewhere.
Whitehead theorizes that it is near the shoreline since most of the stolen items are very heavy. But it’s not buried on a beach because a previous expedition would have uncovered it. He thinks it must be hidden in a natural cave close to shore. And he says that often mudslides cover the entrances to caves and could have sealed the treasure long long ago.
X-Radar Marks the Spot
Whitehead says, “It is not a case of following a map and ‘X’ marking the spot. It is about using a bit of logic to establish the likelihood of some areas where it could be.”
And some technological gadgets that Roosevelt and others didn’t have at their disposal. A small unmanned helicopter equipped with cameras and sensors will scan the nine-square-mile island to make a 3-D map of the terrain. Then a snake-like robot will use ground-penetrating radar to detect any cracks, crevices or cavities up to 60 feet down. That information will be added to the map to help find sealed caves. Once candidate caves have been located a key-hole drill will poke a hole into the void and a one-inch round probe camera will act as the treasure eye, peering into the inky blackness in search of glimmering gold.
Besides treasure hunting the 15-person crew will be conducting other research as well. Unlike previous attempts to recover the over $200 million treasure this one will use a gentler footprint. Rather than destroying forest and digging big holes in the sand the team will be focused on biodiversity, geology and of course archaeology. Whitehead says, “One of the reasons we got permission (from the Costa Rican government) to do the work is that it’s part of a wider scientific survey, but also because the archeology will cause minimum disturbance to the site.”
And if the team unearths the treasure it won’t get rich. Beyond receiving a small salvage fee Whitehead has told Costa Rican authorities that he’ll turn the treasure over to them. Negotiations to conduct this expedition have taken over 18 months and will be the first mission permitted to the UNESCO World Heritage site in 25 years.
The island, located 350 miles off the coast of Costa Rica is home to hundreds of unusual plants and animals and is said to have inspired the book and film Jurassic Park.
Dr. Ina Knobloch is a German biologist who has been to Cocos Island three times. She says, “We have a very good relationship with the authorities and they trust us that this is not a simple treasure hunt.”
The primary purpose of the expedition is to combine scientific studies on the wildlife, geology and archeology of the tiny island. But Whitehead and his wife Alison are avid treasure hunters.They call it a “relaxing and stimulating past-time.” They enjoy poring over books, videos and audio files filled with valuable clues. To date the Whiteheads have found a $100,000 gold casket, a golden apple with diamond-studded leaf brooch made by Garrard’s, the Crown Jeweler and numerous gold coins. Whitehead’s participated in virtual as well as real life treasure hunts and is a member of the Armchair Treasure Hunt Club.
And like many treasure hunts, the Treasure of Lima comes with an intriguing mystery.
After Thompson escaped the clutches of Spanish authorities he ended up in Cuba around 1840, where he met a man named John Keating. The two hatched a plan to return to Cocos Island to retrieve the treasure but Thompson died before the expedition could be mounted. Still Keating and another Newfoundlander named William Boig did return to Cocos Island and returned some of the pirate booty to Canada.
In 2006 Newfoundland journalist Jack Fitzgerald captured the Canadian link to the Treasure of Lima in his book, Treasure Island Revisited. There he argues that Keating’s voyage to Cocos Island in 1846 was the real inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and that left several Newfoundland families with bits of Peruvian gold and jewels that they still have today.He tells the Montreal Gazette, “The Newfoundland connection is very authentic.” He says Keating made a total of three trips to Cocos Island to find the lost treasure. He adds, “I do think there’s treasure still there.”
So does Whitehead. And he’ll attempt to do what a young Roosevelt tried in 1910, what race car driver Campbell tried in the 1920s what actor Flynn tried in the 1940s, and what German explorer August Gissler spent 19 years between 1897 and 1908 — to find the lost Treasure of Lima.
Whitehead says, “Unlike previous trips we are not going to dig vast holes or do anything destructive at all. The real treasure of the island is its natural beauty. Anything else we find there is simply a bonus.”
Cover Photo: Shaun Whitehead (L) with expedition leader Mike Munroe (R).