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Bassas Da India: On The Trail Of Treasure

Bassas da India offers those who make the journey the greatest treasure of all —the rare opportunity to experience the underwater world as it once was.

As befits an atoll so steeped in legend and history, it was while listening to the inebriated stories of an aging treasure hunter that I first heard of Bassas da India. Situated in the Mozambique Channel between the east coast of Africa and the island of Madagascar, very few people are aware that this tiny atoll even exists, but for those in the know, Bassas da India has become synonymous with the kind of adventure only found somewhere truly remote. A 2-day journey from Vilanculos on the Mozambican mainland, the atoll is the product of a submarine volcano that soars 9,800 feet (3,000m) from the ocean floor. At the surface, this peak has created a band of exquisite fringing coral reef, within which lies a lagoon 7 miles (11km) in diameter and just 50 feet (15m) at its deepest point.

From three hours before high tide until three hours afterwards, Bassas da India disappears beneath the surface of the sea. It is this trait that made it a scourge for the sailors of the past, and which has turned it into the ship graveyard that it is today. Although the exact number can’t be known due to the plunging depths around the atoll, it’s estimated that over 100 vessels met their fate on the razor-sharp shoals of Bassas da India. In fact, the atoll earned its name in the early 16th century, when a Portuguese ship called the Judia ran aground upon its hidden reefs. Orginally named Baixo da Judia (which translates as shoal of Judia) the atoll later became known as Bassas da India thanks to the transcription errors of early cartographers.

Of all the wrecks that populate Bassas da India, perhaps the most famous is the Santiago; tales of this ship and its misplaced treasure certainly captured my attention. After the discovery of the trade route between Portugal and India via the Cape of Good Hope at the end of the 15th century, armadas of Portuguese merchant ships frequently made the journey between Lisbon and Goa via Mozambique. One such ship was the carrack Santiago, which departed from Lisbon on April 1, 1585. Captained by Fernão de Mendonça, the Santiago carried a valuable cargo, including 400,000 silver pieces of eight.

It rounded the Cape of Good Hope in excellent time, but later ran aground on the shoals of Bassas da India while attempting to navigate the treacherous waters of the Mozambique Channel at night. The majority of the ship’s crew perished when the tide rose over the shoal and drowned them, with the exception of 50 survivors who eventually came ashore near the mouth of the Zambezi River in the Santiago’s tiny tender.

The ship’s treasure was lost along with the greater part of its crew, and it wasn’t until four centuries later that the Santiago’s cargo was discovered. In 1977, a Swiss sailor named Ernst Erich Klaar read about the Santiago while poring over maritime archives in Durban, South Africa. He became fascinated with the shipwrecks of the Portuguese-India run, and set out with his family aboard a Thai cargo junk to find the wreck of the Santiago.

Incredibly, despite having no real background in salvage and only very basic equipment, Klaar and his family succeeded in their wild dream of finding the Santiago. While snorkeling at Bassas da India in search of rare shells, Ernst’s 14-year-old son, Hans, spotted what looked like a rack of cannons protruding from the profusion of the atoll’s reefs. Thereafter, the Klaars salvaged and brought back to Durban not only those cannons and others like them, but also pieces of gold jewelry, several pounds of silver coins, emeralds, religious artifacts and a rare astrolabe used to calculate the ship’s latitudinal position. They sold the majority of their finds to Portugal’s Museu de Marinha and the Kwa-Zulu Natal Museum, the latter of which positively identified the cannons as having belonged to the Santiago.

Since then several other independent treasure hunters have also had lucrative successes at Bassas da India, however, the French government now heavily polices the atoll, as it falls as part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. Although it is still possible to spot artifacts when diving amongst the wreck graveyards of Bassas da India, all those vessels that moor there must have a previously acquired permit from the French government and are subject to search by patrol boats in place to ensure that no treasure is taken from the atoll’s dive sites. Although tales of treasure hunters like Klaar are no doubt exciting, the lawfulness of their salvage expeditions is questionable. UNESCO is now attempting to locate the dispersed treasure of the Santiago, so as to reclaim the history of the crewmembers who lost their lives in 1585.

Nowadays, the treasure that awaits those divers brave enough to make the long and often uncomfortable voyage to Bassas da India is an ecological treasure of crystalline waters and flourishing marine life, and reefs kept pristine by their remoteness. The atoll’s location in the middle of such deep oceanic waters makes it a mustering point for large pelagics of all kinds, from yellowfin and dogtooth tuna, to schools of giant trevally and the occasional passing sailfish. In addition to achieving legendary status amongst the treasure hunters, Bassas da India has earned a reputation as a shark’s paradise, where hammerheads, oceanic whitetips and silvertip sharks patrol along plunging reef walls. The warm and tranquil shallows of the atoll lagoon provide a nursery for juvenile Galapagos sharks, as well as a variety of other vibrant tropical fish.

Diving at Bassas da India can be challenging, however, as many of the atoll’s best dive sites are deep, and most of them are subject to strong currents. Visibility is typically excellent and can be over 130 feet (40m), but has a tendency to drop dramatically as the tides push in and out over the lip of the atoll’s fringing reef. Divers who want to discover Bassas da India should be confident in their abilities and equipment; the journey to and from the Mozambican mainland and proper medical facilities takes 30 to 40 hours and as such there is very little room for error. You can only access the atoll via a private dive charter, so choose one that’s able to cater to the remote location. Make sure the staff has a good knowledge of the atoll’s dive sites.

In the 16th century, Bassas da India was a sailor’s worst nightmare, a treacherous place where concealed shoals could easily mean death if navigated incorrectly. In the late 20th century, the atoll became synonymous with adventure, a place of real-life hidden treasure. Today, Bassas da India offers those who make the journey the greatest treasure of all —the rare opportunity to experience the underwater world as it once was.