Tracking Trails of Sunken Treasure (Part 1)
Sand spewed around me in small clouds as a combo mini-hurricane and tornado spawned an underwater storm amid a blue-green sea. I grabbed a rock out-cropping and gently exhaled until my chest touched the bottom bringing me eye to eye with clumps of seaweed bent over by strong surges cast from the boat above.
The mailbox and compressor hoses resembled a giant medusa, its dark inner sanctum flanked by black tentacles that tethered treasure salvor John Halas and me to the boat. At a depth of 15 feet, I had plenty of slack in my air line which enabled me to roam around the perimeter of the crater like a mining inspector checking out his prospector’s progress. Schools of chubs and porgies joined me, their mouths gulping minute marine life stirred up from the sand by the blasts of water.
The 90-degree elbow-shaped aluminum tube mounted on the boat’s transom was a prop-wash deflector nicknamed “blower,” “duster,” or “mailbox.” The contraption, slightly larger in diameter than the 24-inch propeller, was lowered on hinges over the prop and locked into position. When the boat was securely anchored over the search area, the engine’s RPMs were set and water was forced toward the bottom in a steady surge. This, in turn, blew the sand away and formed a crater where Halas searched for his treasure trove.
Visibility was good at the start, but the mailbox blasts compounded the scene and created a mini-desert sandstorm. Halas seemed to be playing a game with me: now I see him, now I don’t. Clad in a wet suit top, hood and blue jeans, he faded in and out like a weak TV picture. He resembled a symphony conductor moving his small, hand-held metal detector back and forth over the bottom with one hand while fanning the sand with the other. When the engine was cut off, the surge ceased. Everything settled to the bottom and I could see John clearly as he probed the crater formed by the mailbox. He waited patiently for a “hit” signaled by a bleep and flashing red light on the detector. Stopping suddenly when the light came on, he plucked something from the crater and thrust it at me. My hopes rose, but soon waned. It was a lousy beer can top which I tucked into my wet suit so it couldn’t produce a second disappointment.
But the next artifact he dropped into my outstretched hand was flat, round and black just like coin expert Ernie Richards had described the Spanish reales he had found in this same area. He said the coins are not pretty at the outset, but could be restored through a simple electrolytic reduction process. Halas signaled to take the coin topside where cheers greeted my frantic signal of a discovery. John’s wife, Judy, Rick Gilmore, Richards and Carl Panzarella formed a welcoming committee near the transom as I handed the coin up and headed back down.
The only time Halas surfaced was to signal his wife to move the three mooring lines. She and Gilmore moved the boat ever so slightly and then took sextant readings from markers on shore. I could hardly tell the boat had been moved as I observed that the new bottom pattern closely resembled the area we had just prop-washed. It was obvious Halas wasn’t going to miss one single foot of the seabed. Everything he found was logged and charted including the coin, a small ballast stone, a few nails and some copper sheathing. Time, date, position, tides and weather were all chronicled in efforts to establish patterns. John and Judy, skilled treasure salvors and marine archaeologists, had worked this site and others for years while continuing their careers in marine biology and education.
Fittingly, I caught gold fever while diving with them on the “Gold Wreck,” a nickname for the Nuesta Senora de Las Nieves, one of the galleons of the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet which was ravaged and strewn across the reefs by a brutal hurricane. Located three miles south of Ft. Pierce, Florida, it was one of 12 ships heading back to Spain from Havana, Cuba, her coffers filled with gold and silver coins and bars from New World mints.
For more than 40 years, salvage operations covering 50 acres of ocean bottom have been conducted on the Nieves and six of the other galleons scattered along the underwater terrain from Sebastian Inlet to Ft. Pierce. In 1965, after discovering the Nieves, the late Kip Wagner salvaged more than 1,000 gold doubloons on it. In 1979, the late Bob Weller and his wife, Margaret, retrieved 2,500 silver coins, 62 gold coins and 27 pieces of gold jewelry and gemstones.
Wagner, head of the Reale Eight Company, founded in the early 1960s, salvaged a ton of silver coins on the Regala and 15 silver wedges on the Urca de Lima. He also collected an array of artifacts from other 1715 wrecks including swords, flintlock pistols, cannons, candlesticks and silverware. The late Mel Fisher joined Wagner in 1964 after selling everything he owned in California to follow the 1715 fleet’s trail of treasure.
Fisher was lucky from the start gleaning a boat load of silver and gold coins from the Nieves, the Carmen and the San Roman. But Fisher was itchy and left Wagner as he headed for Key West in 1968 to search for a galleon that obsessed him: the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The rest is history. His discovery of it in 1985—after 16 years of searching—established him as the “Fisher King,” regal patriarch of treasure salvors in the magic kingdom of Key West. Recovery of the $450 million mother lode of the Atocha, one of three Spanish galleons lost in a hurricane off the Keys in 1622, was the culmination of Fisher’s lifelong dream
Next month Part II: More treasure salvors fulfill their dreams. Florida adopts stringent laws.