October 20, 2014

Diving for Billions

Imagine if all the stories you’ve ever heard about sunken treasure were true, and there really were gold and silver bars, grape-sized emeralds, and huge trunks filled with gold and silver coins, just lying on the sea floor waiting for someone to find them.

There are.

Located on the once-busy trade route between the new colonies and Europe, Florida waters contain more colonial-era treasure than any other place in the world. Professional salvers estimate the total value of the state’s sunken treasure to be in the multiple billions of dollars, with at least $1 million in gold and silver coins reputed to lie in the waters off of Naples alone. Every year, scores of treasure hunters scour the sea floor to find it.

Capt. Kym Ferrell, a Florida native who has been working aboard salvage vessels and searching for treasure since he was 14, has had his fair share of good luck. In 1988, Kym found a cache of silver reales worth half a million dollars and over the years has recovered a variety of other coins and rare artifacts.

“I was hooked on treasure hunting the first time I found something manmade underwater,” says Kym. “Of course, finding treasure is obviously the goal, but, still, the adventure of the dive and the thrill of the search is the real fun of treasure hunting.”

Kym enjoys recovering everyday objects from long ago. “Being the first person to hold something that the world hasn’t seen for almost 300 years is an amazing feeling,” he says. “I imagine the person that the article might have belonged to and what their life might have been like. It’s a personal connection with history that you really can’t experience any other way.”

Although GPS and other high-tech devices for salvage, tracking and even for predicting likely scatter patterns have been developed over the last several decades, most of the real work of treasure hunting is done by divers searching a site by hand, inch-by-inch. Like most salvers, Kym uses jet pumps and air lifters to clear away the sand from the sea floor and then scans the bottom surface with a handheld metal detector.

“Blowing the sand away makes the water so cloudy that it’s impossible to see more than an inch or two in front of you, so the metal detector has to be your eyes,” says Kym. He adds that moving the sand exposes crustaceans that attract schools of fish—and fish attract sharks.

“There are always plenty of sharks around, but you really can’t see them through the sand until they’re right next to you. They normally don’t bother divers, but you can sure hear them eating.”

According to Kym, underwater swells and rough tides are a danger. “You get thrown into the rocks quite a bit. Some salvers have trouble getting used to that,” he says. Kym admits that what he does is dangerous, but says it’s just too exciting to resist. He’s not the only one that thinks so.

***


By 10:15 a.m. on Saturday, March 5, 2011, the parking lot of the North County Public Library in Sebastian, Fla., is jam-packed with cars and trucks of every kind for the annual 1715 Fleet Subcontractors Meeting. Attendance at the meeting is required for all treasure hunters planning to dive for lost 1715 Fleet treasure during the 2011 treasure hunting season, which runs from mid-May through mid-September.

Most of the hundred or so people present have been hunting treasure in South Florida’s waters for years, if not decades, and they know each other well. They came to learn about any new state or federal treasure hunting regulations since the last season and to divide the coastline into territories that will keep them out of each other’s way.

Though Kym has captained large boats with a 13- and 14-member crews some years, this season he plans to work with just a handful of crew members from his 24-foot outboard vessel, the Gypsy Queen, searching a ten-mile stretch of coastline from Sebastian inlet to Wabasso Beach, Fla. Among the treasures that Kym and this season’s other hunters are after is a famous cache known as Queen Anne’s Jewels.

In 1715, on the verge of bankruptcy and vulnerable to enemy attack following Queen Anne’s War, King Philip V of Spain had few options but to concede to a political marriage.

Elisabeth Farnese, the wealthy Duchess of Parma, agreed to marry Philip, provided that he furnish her with a dowry of “ornaments” of unmatched value and beauty. The desperate king commissioned an extraordinary collection of jewels. Among them: a gem-encrusted golden carriage pulled by a team of gilded silver horses, two jade hummingbirds with wings of emeralds and pearls, a 74-carat emerald ring set in gold, 41 chests of giant emeralds (some the size of limes), a jewel-studded golden pinecone filled with pearls, a diamond-and-ruby-studded golden crucifix, and a heart crafted of 130 flawless pearls the size of large marbles.

These rare items were to be brought to Spain by the king’s fleet in the Americas, but—with pirates, privateers and treacherous tropical storms interfering—only one in three ships ever made it back to Europe.

Reportedly, the sea was eerily calm when the sun rose over Havana Harbor on July 24, 1715. Even the birds were quiet as the king’s convoy of 12 ships was loaded with 300 massive treasure chests, including the 62 containing Elisabeth’s dowry.

Also on board were bronze cannons and other military equipment stuffed with the captain’s secret horde of gold, silver and emeralds, carefully concealed in hopes of eluding the king’s vigilant tax collectors. But as the fleet rounded the Florida peninsula near modern-day Sebastian, a devastating hurricane cast crew and treasure to the bottom of the sea.

Sympathetic to the loss of life, Elisabeth married Philip anyway. The 300 chests of treasure, as well as the jewel-stuffed cannons and military equipment, remain on the ocean floor, where treasure hunters have been searching for them ever since.

Today, the 62 chests containing Queen Anne’s Jewels alone are valued at $900 million.

“Nowadays, we are required to turn in daily, GPS-based records of our search,” says Kym. He believes these steps will ultimately help salvers close in on big caches like Queen Anne’s Jewels. “We know approximately where it is, and we know where we’ve already searched. At this point, finding it is just a matter of time,” he says.

Depending on its age and condition, a single silver coin can be worth up to $1,000, and a gold coin can fetch as much as $20,000. For those interested in searching Naples waters, Doctors Pass is reportedly a pretty good place to start looking, but don’t get your hopes up.

Despite the fact that more than $1 billion in treasure has been recovered from Florida’s waters by a combination of large, full-time salvage firms and small, two- and three-man freelance operations since the 1960s, the odds of striking it rich are slim. Still, for the hundreds who hunt each year, the possibility of a big score is just too tantalizing to resist. Besides, treasure hunting tends to attract folks who aren’t afraid to bet on a long shot.

***

Often called the greatest treasure hunter of all time, the late Mel Fisher devoted his life to searching for Nuestra Señora de Atocha, the treasure ship of a Spanish flotilla that was lost during a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622.

For 16 years, Fisher pursued his dream of finding the Atocha, investing all of his personal assets in the endeavor and famously heartening his crew each morning with the mantra, “Today’s the day.”

Encouraged by finding the Atocha’s sister ship, the Santa Margarita, as well as a portion of the 1715 Fleet cache (King Philip’s lost treasure) in Sebastian, Fisher continued his search even after the tragic loss of his eldest son, Dirk, in an accident at sea.

Finally, in 1985, Mel received a radio transmission from his son Kane, then the captain of the Fisher’s salvage vessel, the Dauntless. “You can put away the charts,” he said. “We found the mother lode.”

Kane and his crew had found the Atocha’s giant mid-section, and in it, stacks of gold and silver bars, an avalanche of gold and silver coins, precious jewels and rare artifacts valued at more than $500 million. That amount is modest, however, compared to what the shipwreck is expected to eventually yield. The stern castle, the section of the ship that would have carried the fleet’s more significant church treasure, is still at large.

Initially, the entire find was confiscated by the U.S. government, which claimed full ownership of the cache. After a series of 111 court cases, the Fishers finally won the right to retain all but 20 percent of the Atocha treasure (including what has yet to be found) and also were granted the right to 50 percent of all loot ever recovered by any treasure hunter from the Atocha or the 1715 Fleet sites. Last year, the Fishers sold their rights to the 1715 Fleet site to a local salvage firm, Queen Anne’s Jewels LLC, for an undisclosed amount.

Based on the award, the state of Florida receives 20 percent of all sunken treasure recovered, and treasure hunters are permitted to retain the remaining 30 percent of any cache they find.

According to Sharon Wiley, manager of media relations for the Fisher family salvage company, Motivation Inc., even the most precious items are nearly impossible to recognize underwater because everything from rubies to rocks is so heavily encrusted with sand and coral.

“The detectors signal when we pass over metal, but we have no idea what we have found until we get it back to our lab,” Wiley says. She adds that the Fishers’ laboratory in Key West has X-ray, ultrasound and other equipment that allows them to “see through” many centuries of rock to a core that might be precious. 

“Sometimes our divers get excited about finding a large chunk of metal, and it turns out to be a license plate,” she says. “On the other hand, one of our divers was tossing out what he thought were encrusted tuna cans when he picked up one that rattled. The X-ray machine in the lab revealed that it was filled with emeralds.” 
 

 ***

Treasure hunting has been legal in the state of Florida since the 1960s. There are some, however, who consider salvage to be little more than state-sanctioned looting of historical sites and are lobbying to have the practice outlawed.

“Treasure hunting is driven by commercial logic and not by the concern for increasing our knowledge of history,” says Mounir Bouchenaki, assistant director general for culture for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). “Time is money, so treasure hunters must work quickly to raise as many artifacts as possible. We gain an enormous amount of knowledge from wreck sites, but with treasure hunters, all of this is lost. Salvaged artifacts get scattered around the world in private collections. This is a tragic loss for humanity.”

Professional treasure hunters vehemently oppose this assessment. Mel Fisher’s daughter Taffi Fisher-Abt, who runs many of her late father’s operations, asserts that great care is taken to preserve both the historical and environmental integrity of each dive site.

“We bring professional marine archaeologists and marine biologists on every dive to ensure that artifacts are handled properly and that the surrounding marine environment is not disturbed,” she says, adding that wreck sites are meticulously photographed and objects recorded and catalogued to ensure that no useful information is lost.

According to Fisher-Abt, her family’s company has donated an untold number of priceless treasures and historical artifacts to the state of Florida for scientific study and for display in museums. In addition, the family owns and operates the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, where treasure and artifacts can be viewed by the public.

Currently more than 30,000 items—approximately 20 percent of all of the artifacts in Florida’s museums—were donated by treasure hunters.

“If it weren’t for salvage companies, most of these remarkable items would never be seen by human eyes again,” says Fisher-Abt.

Daniel McClarnon, an archaeologist with the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, says that he would prefer to see Florida’s shipwreck sites left intact, but concedes that a significant number of the artifacts in the state’s museums would probably never have been recovered without the help of treasure hunters.

“Our interest is in the pure science,” says McClarnon, “but salvage companies have the money and motivation to search these wreck sites and have yielded discoveries that we might not have achieved otherwise.”

According to McClarnon, the state is working to create a network of underwater archeological preserves called Museums in the Sea to showcase the sites of interesting or significant shipwrecks. “There are currently 11 museums which can be visited by divers,” he says, adding that the sites have also been meticulously videotaped for the enjoyment of non-divers as well.

“Some of the underwater museums preserve old Spanish galleons, while others display lost American ships,” says McClarnon, who adds that a new museum is scheduled to open in Tampa later this year at the site of a lost U.S. naval vessel. (To learn more, visit the state’s website at www.museumsinthesea.com.)

Despite the controversy, it is not likely that we will ever see Queen Anne’s Jewels again unless they are found by a treasure hunter—and maybe this will be the year. About 100 treasure hunters are betting on it.

 

The Thrill of Discovery

Dr. John Wolf of Naples

Naples dentist Dr. John Wolf fell in love with part-time treasure hunting the first time he went out.

Wolf says that he had never considered the idea of treasure hunting until he commissioned a half-day pleasure cruise for his dental staff out of Doctors Pass. “Our pleasure boat captain was also a part-time treasure hunter,” says Wolf. “By the end of our cruise, I had convinced him to take me on a dive. It was fantastic. I found a silver coin my first day out.”

According to Wolf, he has since gone treasure hunting a dozen or so times and has found scores of coins that he has put to good use. “I’ve had beautiful jewelry made for my wife. I also donated several pieces to my daughter’s school, Seacrest Country Day School, for their annual auction,” he says.

 

Bonnie Schubert of Vero Beach

Last year, 1715 Fleet subcontractor Bonnie Schubert made a thrilling find. The part-time treasure hunter, who dives with her 87-year-old mother as the only crew member of her 30-foot vessel, the Gold Hawg, found a five-and-a-half-foot-tall, 22-karat gold ornament in the shape of a bird weighing 177 grams and valued at $885,000.

“I was just totally amazed to blow the sand away and find this gold bird lying at the bottom of the ocean. It’s something I could hardly even imagine.”

According to Schubert, she found the artifact—which is part of the 1715 Fleet treasure—in 16 feet of water off of Fort Pierce. “This is why we search,” says Schubert. “It’s a privilege to bring ashore an item like this. I will never forget this feeling.”

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