After the battle of Trafalgar, the British hold on captured Spanish and French ships was tenuous. Some of those hard-won line-of-battle ships went out of control in the great storm immediately after the battle, drifted onto rocks and the shore, and broke up with tremendous loss of life. Some were retaken by their defeated crews in order to save themselves from the dangers of a lee shore. A few ships made it back to Cádiz only to go onto the rocks at the entrance of the harbor. The people of Cádiz pulled many survivors from the surf, collected the dead who washed up on their shores, and cared for them all, regardless if they were Spanish, French, or British.
Several of the captured ships were intentionally scuttled by the Royal Navy to deny them to the enemy. Among those scuttled was the greatest sailing ship of its era, the mighty four-decked, 136-gun Santisima Trinidad. Towed to an anchorage in fairly shallow water northwest of Cádiz, she was sunk several days after the battle, along with the Spanish ship Argonauta.
In 2004, funded in part with a grant from the National Geographic Society, the marine research organization RPM Nautical asked the Andalusian government for permission to explore, in collaboration with the Center for Underwater Archaeology (CAS) of Andalusia, the waters of the Gulf of Cádiz. The goal was to document the areas where the ships involved in the battle of Trafalgar, including the Santisima Trinidad and the Argonauta, sank and were wrecked; to survey them with multibeam sonar; and if possible to photograph whatever remained. The joint research project between CAS, RPM Nautical, and National Geographic magazine was for scientific and historical study only, with no plan to intrude on the ships themselves. Unfortunately, the research plan did not count on three feet (one meter) of mud that had washed down from the Guadalquiver River and been deposited across the area where the ships went down.
RPM Nautical's state-of-the-art 3-D sonar revealed two great mounds of the correct size, shape, and location to be the remains of the two ships. Visual evidence gained from a camera-equipped ROV, provided by National Geographic, showed the mounds covered in the type of mud that springs up in a brown cloud of particles at the least disturbance. Photography was impossible, in other words, and confirmation of the two wrecks as Santisima Trinidad and Argonauta was also impossible under the circumstances.
That's the problem with exploration—one doesn't always find a gem or a pristine artifact gleaming on the seafloor. Sometimes discovery is messy. As the editorial researcher who set this expedition on its way, from researching ship positions in the British logs to helping to negotiate the agreement with CAS, I believe the real payoff of the expedition was the chance for National Geographic to work cooperatively with Spain's marine archaeologists, and with RPM Nautical, without the specter of treasure hunters or salvagers.
If this expedition paved the way for future exploration with CAS, and we hope that it has, then the project will have been a success—but I'd still like to know what Santisima Trinidad looks like today under all that mud.
—David W. Wooddell