Herman Moro’s ship finally came in.
Just two weeks ago, after a long fight, Moro took possession of some of the bounty he’d discovered in waters just off the Ecuadorian coast in November 1996. The 32-year-old Reston landscaper, who hunts treasure merely as a hobby, now stands to collect a seven-figure paycheck that’s been in the works for quite some time. Like, about 350 years.
For Moro and his supporters, the ordeal to get their hands on that sunken lucre only seems to have taken centuries. As detailed in these pages last year (“Finders Keepers?” 6/20/97), Moro happened upon the wreckage of La Capitana, a giant Spanish galleon and the Titanic of its time, during his very first treasure-hunting expedition.
As things turned out, finding the long-lost ship was the easy part.
“There’s a saying: Treasure is trouble; big treasure is big trouble,” says Moro. “This is big treasure.”
Very big, in fact. La Capitana, described by historians as the biggest freight-hauling vessel in the world when it was christened in 1654, sank on its maiden voyage. The ship was loaded with silver from the mines and mints of Potosi, a city in what was then Peru, along with tax payments from other Spanish colonies. The manifest indicated that more than 10 million ounces of silver were being hauled back to the king of Spain in more than 200 different treasure chests. The ship was also weighted down with contraband cargo the captain had kept
off the books. And when La Capitana headed for the bottom of the Pacific, all that precious metal went down with her.
The king ordered public hanging for some of the individuals he deemed responsible for the wreck and then sent pearl divers to scavenge the site. Salvors had no problem finding the boat, but, limited by their lung power, left plenty of loot on the ocean floor for latter-day treasure hunters to seek. But even with the advent of scuba gear and radar technology, La Capitana went unfound for centuries.
Then Moro took up treasure hunting.
He enrolled at a Fairfax diving school in 1991 and, after reading about the hunt for La Capitana in a diving magazine, dove into a research effort that lasted several years. Combining what he’d learned about the wreck at libraries and government archives with what local mathematician David Trader taught him about the concept of “search theory,” Moro decided that the ship’s carcass was most likely in a quarter-mile-square area of ocean floor less than a mile offshore from El Real, a poor and puny Ecuadorian fishing town.
“Herman just had this dream about finding this ship, and, as unachievable as it sounded, he made me believe it was possible, so I decided to work with him,” says Trader, who also gave financial support to Moro’s salvage endeavor.
During what was planned as a brief vacation from his landscaping business, Moro went to ground zero to test his guesstimate of the ship’s location. Amazingly, it was right on.
But from the time a member of his dive team brought up that first Cobb, or silver coin, until last month, Moro couldn’t be sure if his treasure hunt would have a happy ending.
The rediscovery of La Capitana launched a legal battle between Moro and Ecuador over ownership of the boat’s bounty. Just like when he first started his search, Moro was up against fantastic odds; no hunter from the U.S. had ever been granted the rights to a sunken treasure found in South American waters, and Ecuadorian brass seemed determined to keep that streak intact. Government officials insisted they should declare the wreckage to be part of the nation’s “cultural heritage” and therefore keep all the treasure for themselves. Moro stood to be left with nothing for all his efforts except a good story and heavy debts.
But, somehow, Moro’s lawyers convinced the state to let the finder be a keeper. They argued that the ship had no cultural ties to Ecuador, since its cargo had been en route from Peru to Spain and had ended up in the country’s waters only by happenstance. They softened Ecuador up by agreeing to split the bounty evenly with the government.
Because of the legal wrangling, Moro’s team had stopped excavating the crash site, and he had come back to D.C. to tend to his customers’ lawns. While the debate raged on shore, the spoils were stored in the Central Bank of Ecuador in Quayaquil, while military gunboats stood watch above the wreckage to prevent other parties from looting the loot.
Two weeks ago, Ecuadorian officials caved in. Paul Karon, a numismatist and sunken-treasure expert of world renown, was called down to Ecuador to divide the already recovered bounty into two piles. Karon completed his work in three days. The government got first choice, and less than five minutes after he finished his division, it made its pick. Moro gladly accepted possession of the other pile.
There was no wrong pick, Karon insists.
“The La Capitana is truly a historic find, one of the most exciting finds I’ve ever been a part of,” says Karon from his Delray Beach, Fla., home. “There were great artifacts, and the quality of some of these coins is truly spectacular. And the fact that Herman is the first to get a South American treasure released is very significant. This really could open the door for other treasure hunters, which would create a whole new industry off Ecuador.”
Moro didn’t get much time to celebrate his acquisition. Right after he learned that he would be getting something after all, Moro went to an associate’s house in Ecuador, only to receive an anonymous death threat.
“We were told we’d all be killed,” Moro says. “The news about our agreement wasn’t even public yet, but somebody had obviously heard. That’s the kind of [hassle] you’ve got to expect in treasure hunting, and it’s kind of what we’ve been living through for a long time now.”
Moro’s treasure pile is now being shipped to Florida for cleaning and appraisal, and the current plan is to auction it off. He estimates that his group will collect more than $1 million from the sale of the first batch of artifacts, plus an untold amount from future excavations of the wreckage. He says he’ll use at least a portion of his earnings to build a jetty for the fisherman of El Real, a town that was originally founded by survivors of the La Capitana.
As green as he is in the treasure-hunting field, the numbers being thrown around as his potential compensation from La Capitana no longer sound so big to him. Not big enough to convince him to give up landscaping, anyway.
“It’s not going to be the billions of dollars that some people thought I’d get, but I will get a nice return on my original investment,” he says. “But this never was a question of money; it was a challenge and an adventure. So I could have accepted that there wasn’t a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Now that it turns out there is that pot, well, that’s great, too.”Dave McKenna