Mr Gillies aims the 1730 flintlock pistol he found while treasure hunting off Bermuda’s shores. *Photo by James Whittaker
Mr Gillies aims the 1730 flintlock pistol he found while treasure hunting off Bermuda’s shores. *Photo by James Whittaker

WEDNESDAY, SEPTEMBER 28: From a 1730 flintlock pistol engraved with the initials of its owner to a wooden-handled tube used for delivering enemas to 18th century sailors, the artefacts that adorn the walls of Billy Gillies’ home offer a fascinating glimpse into the past.

A wreck hunter on Bermuda’s reefs for almost two decades, Mr Gillies’ later became renowned as a skilled restorer of relics uncovered among the debris of the island’s shipwrecks.

His home is a museum exhibit of pots, bottles, lamps and weapons from ships spanning four centuries that met their end in Bermuda’s waters.

The 81-year-old, who was among a generation of underwater explorers that uncovered countless historic treasures on the reef, is now trying to give away his impressive collection to be displayed to the public.

But he says he can’t find any takers.

“I wanted the national maritime museum to take them but they...weren’t recovered under archaeological conditions.

“To me this is what people want to see. It is the artefacts that bring the stories of the ships to life.”

Mr Gillies, who dove with one of the pioneers of Bermuda underwater exploration Harry Cox, was part of a team that uncovered gold bars, coins and an emerald  — apparently from a Spanish ship wrecked on the reefs in the 16th century.

He also counts an elephant’s tusk and 24 cannons, including one made from bronze, among the discoveries he and his fellow divers made in the 1970s.

Divers on recreational SCUBA trips still visit the Manila wreck where the canons lie wedged against the reef today.

Teddy Tucker was the most famous and most successful of Bermuda’s underwater explorers.

But in the three decades after the war a handful of early SCUBA divers scoured the reefs in search of treasure beneath the waves.

While today’s wreck-hunters use modern technology to roam the deep ocean for sunken treasure, these pioneers of underwater exploration in Bermuda used far less sophisticated methods.

“We started by hooking a ladder under the transom and just hanging underneath the boat. After that we used an old automobile tyre. We’d put a foot in the tyre and hang from the back of the boat on a rope.”

The divers later graduated to a series of home-made contraptions that enabled them to be towed underwater behind the boat.

One of these was a ‘diving plane’ – a small board with two handles that a diver in full SCUBA gear could use to roam the underwater world as he was towed behind the boat.

Mr Gillies estimates he spent almost every Thursday and Sunday for 18 years of his life ‘flying underwater’ in this fashion behind Mr Cox’s boat.

“I would just scour the ocean floor for anything that looked out of the ordinary for five or six hours at a time. I didn’t like boats so I always preferred to be in the water. We had many days where we didn’t find anything at all but the reefs were pretty, so I didn’t mind.

“People still come to me and think that I know where all these undiscovered wrecks are but I was behind the boat the whole time so I couldn’t tell you. A lot of what we did was pot-luck we trawled the reefs until we found something.”

Spotting a pistol or a tusk amid the reef was not as simple a task as it might sound. Many of the artefacts in Mr Gillies’ home were degraded from their original forms and covered in coral over centuries on the ocean floor before they were found.

The pistol was so encrusted with growth it had to be x-rayed to determine exactly what it was.

It takes sharp eyes, says Mr Gillies, to spot some shape, slightly out of place in the underwater world.

“Like anything else if you do it long enough you get quite good at it,” he said.

The former diver believes his greatest contribution to Bermuda’s underwater heritage though is his skill as a self-taught restorer of underwater artefacts.

In a small-lab on the grounds of his Smiths’ home he has restored countless jars, bottles, trinkets and other relics to their former glory.

He believes there are many more wrecks in Bermuda’s waters, with more treasure yet to be found.

“There may be a few even in the relatively shallow water that we haven’t yet discovered but I think the majority are in that 2,000 foot-plus range.

“You can’t dive on those even with modern equipment. I think it is a shame for them but the wreck hunters of the future will be sitting at a computer. They won’t even need to get their feet wet.”