The Wrecks of Utila
For Fun if not Profit

May 28th, 2013
by Gunter Kordovsky

The Rock, as this Jewel in the Carribean is called by the locals, has turned into a diving mecca in the last two decades. Utila is a volcanic island with dropoffs a stone’s throw from the beach, making for excellent wall diving and beach entrance (if it’s not too rough). Its famous “Big Wall” at Turtle Harbour drops off into the abyss where the continental shelf comes in.

The author in the wheelhouse of the Halliburton, one of Utila’s many wreck-diving sites.

The author in the wheelhouse of the Halliburton, one of Utila’s many wreck-diving sites.

The same features that make Utila a diver’s paradise make the island hazardous for ships, especially in the old days when there was no electronic gear or weather forecasts. It is a veritable maritime graveyard, and a playground for wreck-divers.

In 1970 I sailed to Utila on the Fathom II, an underwater archaeological salvage operation. Our mission was to search for vessels that fell victim to some sharp reef, hurricane or engagement with pirates. We searched for a galleon named the Santiago, which was supposedly off the north coast of Honduras, near a small island with two hills. Utila seemed to fit that description. But after a six-month search, we learned the “phantom galleon” was never even near Utila!

However, in June 1971, Chris Talberd, another Fathom diver, and I discovered the Oliver wreck in 70 feet of water near the ship channel. The Oliver had a cargo of logwood when she sank. We excavated the wreck and found two 12-foot anchors and a cannon, plus lots of interesting artifacts. From a financial point of view it was a complete farce. But as an experience it was great!

The Fathom, contrary to popular belief, eventually went the way of many treasure hunts – it’s more profitable to write about treasure than to look for it. Only a few, like Mel Fisher, who found the Atocha motherlode after 10 years and four tragic deaths, have struck it rich.

On the north side of Utila is an unidentified wreck site where ballast and artifacts have been found, including the top of a 200-300 year old Noel Gin bottle. There are several other areas where ballast rocks have been found.

More recently, the Aguilar beached itself on the west end carrying 25,000 sacks of cement. She was eventually pulled/towed to Utila. Hurricane Mitch broke the wreck in half in 1998.

The Rojen, a 38-foot sailing vessel built in Germany and commissioned in 1977, had been traveling around the US and Central America for years when on Christmas Eve 2000 she broke her mooring at Utila and hit the dock, making a big hole. After much deliberation she was sunk at Ted’s point, a popular dive site near the airport caves.

Then there is the infamous Olympia, which was sunk in deep water in 1905 after Robert McField slaughtered all the people on board. She never has been found.

Another small boat disappeared outside the lighthouse with crew in a storm. There is also a Cessna fuselage in the ship channel near the Oliver site.

Last but not least there is the Nirvana, another sleek sailing boat, which was bought by a local for the engine. Gunter’s Ecomarine dive shop spent two days cleaning the vessel, which then was sunk at 30 meters depth in a sandspot near the Pretty Bush Bank, three-quarters of a mile out, in 2011.

That about covers our wrecks around Utila. Of course one never knows what lurks in the deep recesses of the continental shelf. And for the dreamers who are looking for the wreck, as many wannabes have learned the hard way, it takes millions to make millions. Yes, they are out there somewhere. But until you find them, dream on, and happy searching!

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For Fun if not Profit

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