Submerged Cultural Resource Survey of Drakes Bay Scheduled for October 1997

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Date: October 13, 1997
Contact: John Dell'Osso, 415-464-5135

The first phase of a two-year project to identify underwater archeological resources of Drakes Bay within Point Reyes National Seashore and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary began today and will continue until October 24. This project is a joint partnership between Point Reyes National Seashore, the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and the California State Lands Commission.

The project is sponsored and funded by private and public agencies. Organizations providing assistance to the project include San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, National Maritime Museum Association, Institute for Western Maritime Archeology, David Clarke & Associates representing Triton Technology, Edgetech, and specialty Devices, Inc., Point Reyes National Seashore Association, Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, Drake Navigators Guild, University of California at Berkeley, and Sonoma State University.

The project will be conducted over two years. The primary objectives of the research project are:

  • to develop information for long-term preservation of cultural resources in Drakes Bay
  • to detect and reevaluate shipwreck sites in preselected portions of Drakes Bay
  • to investigate anomalies located during the research/survey phase
  • to locate the Manila Galleon, San Agustin
  • to test equipment for moving sand near high potential anomalies and state-of-the art techniques to protect divers from white sharks

The overall research effort will be a multi-disciplinary approach directed by the National Park Service Submerged Cultural Resources Unit. The team is composed of public and private individuals with expertise in underwater archeology, maritime history, curation, Geographic Information System, remote sensing and analysis, geology, geomorphology, and Chinese ceramics.

The first phase of this project being conducted this fall, will use sophisticated remote sensing equipment such as a magnetometer, sidescan sonar, and sub-bottom profiler to determine the geology of Drakes Bay and locate anomalies lying under many feet of sand.

The second phase of the project next year, will evaluate the data previously collected and develop appropriate recovery techniques for investigating high potential archeological anomalies. The major recovery phase is scheduled to take place in October, 1998. Anomalies could indicate 16th Century vessel armament, anchors, rock ballast, porcelain pieces, and ship wood fragments.

In 1982 and 1983, the National Park Service conducted an underwater remote sensing survey for the submerged lands of Drakes Bay, the Point Reyes Headlands, and the Great Beach. A number of historic shipwrecks were located and documented. The team also noted magnetic anomalies in an area that historic records indicate is a high probability zone for the location of the San Agustin, a Manila Galleon lost during the Cermeño expedition in 1595.

Point Reyes and Drakes Bay have been important in the early historical development of the San Francisco region, and consequently have been the location of numerous shipwrecks. The earliest wreck dates from the period of colonial exploration when the Spanish Manila Galleon San Agustin was lost in Drakes Bay in 1595. This three-masted ship was probably about 80 feet long and 200 tons. She was turned over to Captain Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño who has been sent from Mexico to explore the coast of Northern California and confirm reports of the discoveries of Sir Francis Drake sixteen years earlier. There are at least 72 other marine disasters recorded during the period 1840 to 1940, resulting in at least 30 wrecks in the area, with over 30 in Drakes Bay or on the Point Reyes headlands.

There is very little question concerning whether or not Sebastian Rodriguez Cermeño lost the San Agustin in 1595, in what is now known as Drakes Bay. The reason for this comparatively high level of confidence in Cermeño’s presence in the area is that there is a personal account of his journey down the coastline from the place where his vessel was lost, while he and most of his crew were on shore.

To locate the San Agustin would be of particular significance to both researchers and resource management personnel. Shipwrecks represent unique historical events; they are particularly important not only to historians, but to social scientists. Our present-day understanding of pre-19th century ship construction, maritime culture, and shipboard interaction is extremely poor. Therefore, test excavations of a 16th-century merchant ship, especially a ship that was involved in long distance trade with Manila, would provide invaluable data.

The National Park Service and the National Marine Sanctuary are the stewards of many of America’s most important cultural, natural, and recreational resources. They are charged to preserve them unimpaired for the enjoyment of present and future generations. The material evidence of past human activities is finite and nonrenewable. Such tangible resources begin to deteriorate almost from the moment of their creation. This project and other resource efforts, allow us to preserve, protect, and interpret the cultural heritage of our nation to the public.

Vessels (sea) and aircraft will not be allowed within the research area, which extends one mile offshore from Chimney Rock to the southern end of Limantour Beach. This is required for the safety of personnel.


Last updated: February 28, 2015

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