At the end of the Sixteenth Century, the Santa Margarita was one of the largest sailing vessels in the world, a ship so large it was described as “a mountain in the sea,” yet a few weeks after embarking from Manila in July 1600 it was reduced to a derelict by storms and poor seamanship.
The Santa Margarita was built in the Philippines to carry the riches of the orient on an annual voyage from Manila to Acapulco, where a trade fair was held when the "China Ship" arrived. The oriental goods were traded for silver coins and bullion to be carried on the return trip to Manila. The round trip was repeated annually.
IOTA Partners, a group of Americans interested in maritime history, researched the ship in archives in Spain, the Vatican, Manila and the USA. The research indicated the ship sank near the island of Rota, in the Northern Mariana Islands, a Commonwealth of the USA located about 1500 miles east of the ship’s home port of Manila.
IOTA contacted the Commonwealth government for rights to the Santa Margarita, assuming it could be found. An exclusive agreement was signed which calls for IOTA to provide all the financing and know-how, and to share the artifacts and other proceeds of the venture with the Commonwealth. The agreement is governed by US laws, and the project is monitored by 11 federal and Commonwealth agencies, often representing conflicting interests, such as Federal versus Commonwealth interests, and historic preservation versus environmental interests. Such conflicts have prevented operations for five of the thirteen years since the recovery was initiated. Operations are further complicated by a seasonal weather pattern which limits recovery operations to the Summer months. Even in those months, diving operations are often interrupted by high surf from typhoons. The short dive season necessitates mobilization and demobilization each year, adding considerably to operating costs. Despite the difficulties of simultaneously dealing with government and nature, IOTA Partners has succeeded in recovering extraordinary religious art, Ming dynasty porcelain, gemstones and more.