by Kathleen Scalise
Shipwrecks and shark attacks were on the mind of graduate student James Allan when he and a team of archaeologists dived in the dangerous waters of Point Reyes last month. The team braved one of the most heavily shark-infested areas of the world to hunt for the oldest shipwreck on the California coast, the San Agustin.
It sank 400 years ago when it dragged anchor in stormy weather and foundered on a Point Reyes sandbar.
Luckily, none of the man-eating white sharks that frequent the area were spotted during the two-week dive.
"You could have water-skied out there. The ocean was absolutely glass flat," Allan said.
Allan reports the team discovered potential shipwreck material in Drakes Bay. Debris in two spots correlated nicely with the suspected resting place of the San Agustin.
"We are detecting iron under the sediment," Allan said. "It could be a Chevy short block or it could be a refrigerator or it could be a 16th century cannon. But the things we are detecting are not aberrations or geologic formations. They are real cultural objects."
The relics are buried under sand and await excavation next year. Their location came to light during scans of the seabed with sonar and other remote sensing devices.
A joint effort of the Point Reyes National Seashore, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and the California State Lands Commission, Berkeley participants include Allan and Professor of Anthropology Kent Lightfoot. Allan is also director of the Institute for Western Maritime Archaeology, affiliated with the campus's Archaeological Research Facility.
The sinking of the San Agustin was a fateful moment for California. Many historians believe it changed the course of history.
Prior to the tragedy, the captain of the San Agustin, Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño, was on the verge of discovering the San Francisco Bay. Because of the shipwreck, he failed to make the find and the bay remained unknown for almost 200 years.
Reports of a large body of water in the north had reached Spanish authorities and Cermeño's charge was to confirm the rumors. His crew was assembling a launch to explore the region when a squall doomed the mother ship, harbored in Drakes Bay.
Thus the discovery of the Golden Gate was left to Gaspar de Portola, whose overland party finally stumbled on San Francisco Bay while in search of Monterey Bay in 1769.
"The history of California and probably the West as well could have been totally different," says a National Park Service account of the sea tragedy. "Had the San Agustin not wrecked, the Golden Gate would almost certainly have been discovered.... Once the Golden Gate had been discovered, the way would have been open to the California gold fields.... The mood of the day was for gold and silver. California might have been opened to thousands of Spanish gold seekers and settlers at the end of the sixteenth century."
The San Agustin was a three-masted ship of about 80 feet and 200 tons. Her captain sailed from Manila in 1595 loaded with silk, wax, porcelain, silver and other trade goods, bound for Acapulco.
Many of the crew perished with the San Agustin, but Cermeño and 70 survivors returned to Mexico in the launch they were assembling to explore the coast.
As for the San Agustin, "it could be the ship got beat to death," said Allan, "but in shipwrecks the lower half of the hull usually sinks into the bottom sediment and gets covered."
With a bit of luck-and a shark cage for protection-Allan hopes to return next year and find the ship that never made it to San Francisco.