Thursday, May 11, 2006


History emerges from deep waters


By Crissa Shoemaker Debree
May 07, 2006

A Newtown company is attempting to bring up a part of American history that it believes is buried deep beneath the surface of the sea.More Philadelphia Suburbs news

In the frigid waters of the Atlantic, off the coast of Nova Scotia, sits the earliest remnants of America's White House, pre-1812.

At least that's what Bob Baca believes, and he's determined to bring them up.

Baca is the CEO of Sovereign Exploration Associates International Inc., a publicly traded marine exploration company in Newtown.

This summer, divers working for the company will start excavating a shipwreck that some believe is the final resting place of the HMS Fantome, one of three ships carrying loot ransacked from the White House during the War of 1812. All three are believed to have sunk off the Canadian coast.

Until now, Sovereign officials have been quiet about the expedition, and they still haven't officially said the wreck is the Fantome.

But as the first artifacts are brought up from the deep, Baca, who lives in Northampton, expects worldwide attention. And he predicts conflict among Nova Scotia, which officially owns the wreck because it's in provincial waters; the United States, which wants its history back; and Great Britain, which could maintain the ship belongs to it.

Baca has some harsh words for the English.

“It would be pretty nervy [for Britain to make a claim] because everything on it was stolen from us,” he said. “How dare they even think they'll come in when it's all stolen goods [from America] anyway?”

Whatever the outcome, this summer will be an exciting time for Sovereign, which is headquartered roughly 50 miles from the Atlantic but is closely tied to some of the most important shipwrecks in history. Baca's background isn't in shipwrecks, though, it's in business. Over 20 years, he has owned video stores, MRI centers, real estate and other ventures.

When Barry Gross of Bensalem approached Baca a few years ago about investing in marine exploration, Baca was skeptical that any money could be made. He pictured guys with snorkels or — worse — pirates working outside the bounds of the law.

That's not what Gross had in mind. He was partners with Capt. Robert MacKinnon, a lobster fisherman and ex-military police officer in Nova Scotia. MacKinnon held licenses for areas that contain hundreds of shipwrecks in Nova Scotia's waters, but he didn't have the money to explore them.

Gross convinced Baca to go to Halifax to meet MacKinnon.

“You think of the concept of treasure hunting as like pirates,” Baca said. “He's [MacKinnon] the exact opposite.”

Baca learned a lot about history in summer 2004. He found out that Colonial trade routes took ships up the Eastern seaboard to Halifax, where they'd shoot across to Europe. The ships that made it that far had already escaped Caribbean pirates, but many couldn't escape the currents and hurricanes prevalent in Nova Scotia waters. Halifax is also home to Port Louisburg, a key military fortress off Cape Breton Island.

“I was shocked,” Baca said, “the opportunity that was really there.”

Baca also said he was so impressed with MacKinnon that he raised $400,000 in spring 2004 to finance the exploration of the shipwrecked Le Chameau, a French ship that sunk in 1725. Several years' worth of pay for France's soldiers went down with it. Historians say its loss cost France its dominance in North America.

By the end of that first summer, Baca had fallen in love with sea exploration. He decided to form a company dedicated to pursuing artifacts at the bottom of the ocean. He raised another $1 million for last summer's expeditions to Le Chameau and the Fantome.

Each time the divers descended to the wrecks, they came up with artifacts that helped them identify the ships. Artifacts at Le Chameau included gold coins and what could be gold papal ring from the Vatican. They found buttons from a naval uniform in the wreck they believe is the Fantome.

“I really got hooked,” Baca said. “Treasure hunting is like life. It's about the hunt. You never know what will come up.”

Sovereign's portfolio companies hold site licenses for areas that contain about 450 shipwrecks. From there, it can apply for disturbance permits to explore the sites to identify the ships. Once that happens, recovery permits can be granted to bring everything up.

Under Nova Scotia's Treasure Trove Act, permit holders must turn over everything they find to the government, which is entitled to a 10 percent royalty. That royalty is typically taken in the form of artifacts. After negotiations, the government turns over the rest of the recovered objects to the company. Until that time, Sovereign doesn't own what it has excavated.

This summer, Sovereign divers will concentrate their efforts on three shipwreck sites — those of the French ship Le Chameau, the HMS Tilbury and what they believe is the Fantome. The Tilbury was one of 20 British warships that tried to engage a French naval fleet in 1757 in the Louisburg harbor off Halifax. It wasn't the battle, however, that toppled the ships. It was a hurricane that sunk several ships, including the Tilbury.

The ship was carrying an estimated half-million silver Spanish pillar dollars, more commonly known as pieces of eight. Baca said the payload would be worth between $25 million and $30 million today.

Other ships in the company's licensed portfolio could carry loads worth up to $1 billion, Baca said, but the historical value of some wrecks is worth far more than that.

“We're not just about selling things,” Baca said. “The history should be told.”

The shipwreck Baca believes is the Fantome is the most exciting prospect for Baca. Few objects were left from the White House pre-1812, because everything was stolen or burned by the British when they invaded Washington, D.C., historians say.

“There's nothing prior to 1814 from the White House,” Baca said. “This is our history of the first four presidents.”

In addition to the Canadian wrecks, Sovereign also has the rights to wrecks off the coast of Spain and has been approached about bringing up American World War I and II planes in Chinese and American waters.

Baca said there's little competition from other explorers because of the conditions in Canada. The ocean floor is covered with rocks, which must be returned to their exact positions so the ecosystem won't be affected, he said. The cold winters and the lobster season — the region's top industry — restrict diving to the months of June through October.

“It's very dangerous,” said Baca, who said he hasn't dived and doesn't plan on doing it now.

“These are certified divers,” he said. “At times, we have ropes that we anchor down to the bottom, and they have to hold onto the ropes as they're diving because they get swept away from the currents.”

Sovereign is seeking partnerships with universities and museums to document the history of some of the artifacts, Baca said. He also said the company is interested in movie and book deals that would share the historical significance of the wrecks with the rest of the world.

“I'm not a pirate,” Baca said. “We're not salvagers. We're about history. Bringing up history out of the water, that's what we do. A few coins here and there would be nice, to pay the bills.”


In regards to Mr. Baca's comment on the nervy British, presumably the wreck contains many things that belonged to the sailors and to the British government, not to Americans, not least of which would be the ship itself. And the bodies that rest with that ship were British citizens. This sense of outrage doesn't seem to carry over to his work on a French ship to which an American company can have no historical claim. On top of that, the plunder from the White House was taken in a time of war, following American aggression on York, the capital of Upper Canada, at which time Americans took their own share of plunder. Furthermore, I think it is pretty nervy of an American company to come into Canadian waters to make money and get a little macho glory removing heritage resources that anywhere but in Nova Scotia would be protected by heritage legislation. Those concerned with nautical heritage around the world should be appalled at the Nova Scotia government's continued support for its antiquated Treasure Trove legislation.
Hey, the Brits sacked out capital city. It's our stuff, we want it back. You really think bodies would still be in the ship after all there years? Get real. I'm sure the salvors would return personal effects from British sailors, we just want our history back.
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