Gin Fizz: Treasure Quest in the Florida Keys
My Bartender’s Guide for Delectable Drinks describes a Gin Fizz as: refreshing, exhilarating and unique—a delightful treat on a hot summer day. Nothing could have defined my recent treasure hunt off Key Largo, Florida, any better than that. And I extend kudos to Capt. Carl “Fizz” Fismer for his help and guidance in making my dream come true. One of the greatest treasure salvors in the business, Capt. Fismer still plows the waters of South Florida, the Caribbean, South America and the Orient. After 35 years of treasure quests, he still savors the thrill of the hunt. Check out his website: www.carlfismer.com. Also, see Lost Treasure, December, 2009: The Mo Molinar Story: A Half-Century of Professional Treasure Finding. Fizz, who specializes in Spanish galleons and other early colonial shipwrecks, is one of the most respected and knowledgeable salvage professionals in the world. He has recovered Spanish gold, silver, jewels and artifacts from many wrecks; worked with the late Mel Fisher on the Santa Margarita site; and headed an expedition on the Conception—a treasure galleon that sank in 1641 off Silver Shoals, Dominican Republic.
Fizz and I had corresponded for three years before we met. Then when he came to Washington, DC on business and I met him at the National Archives, we spent the day researching pirate ships of the Caribbean. When we parted, Fizz said, ‘When you get time come on down and see me. I’ll Take You Treasure Diving.” Three months later I was banging on his door in Key Largo, dive gear in hand and treasure lust in my heart. Fizz remained true to his word.
Our Treasure Quest would be on the Tres Puentes (Spanish for Three Decks) one of 11 ships of the New Spain Fleet that sank in a tropical hurricane in 1733. Sailing from Havana, Cuba, to Spain and loaded with New World treasures, the vessels sank over a span of 80 miles. The Tres Puentes carried a load of silver ingots formed by pouring the molten metal into sand-cast depressions. They ranged from 10 to 17 pounds each and although the Spanish recovered some of them in shallow water, salvors have discovered others over the years.
It was a beautiful day when we boarded the Nite Life, a 41-foot Lafitte Skiff captained by Herman Agerton of Mobile and shoved off from Azalea Canal at Plantation Key Colony. Slowly but surely we made it to Tavernier Creek, crossed under the bridge and broke out of brown waters into a crystal clear sea. That’s when first-mate Dennis Benefito of Framingham, Massachusetts, started setting up the dive gear.
As the boat cruised between Alligator and Crocker Reefs, three miles from shore, Dennis prepared to drop anchor over a dark spot in the middle of a sandy bottom where the water was only 15 feet deep. He and Herman skillfully secured the boat over the ballast pile of the Tres Puentes. The first-mate rigged Fizz, then me with 100 feet of hose from an Airline direct drive hookah compressor and thrust the small, sturdy Fisher Pulse 8X into my hands. Fizz showed me how to use it, then splash! I was finning over a shipwreck where conquistadors once tread. Spanish galleons with Quixotic names like Capitana, San Pedro, Chavez and El Infante also sank in these same waters, only there wasn’t much remaining on this wreck site: just a pile of ballast stones about 50 feet long and 20 feet wide and a few wooden planks half-buried in the sand. I had been forewarned. There wouldn’t be a lot to see on a wooden ship this old, but it’s still fun exploring what’s left.
Juvenile wrasse and silversides milled around the sparse strands of sea grass that sprouted from the sand. The head of the detector moved through the sand like a stingray seeking sustenance. Fizz had clued me to keep the head in the sand, not over it. Sandy areas are the best bet for finding treasure. It was fun, but after 30 minutes the needle never moved more than a quarter of an inch. Even I—a neophyte—knew this wasn’t a hit. Forty-five minutes, then an hour passed and nothing! Should I try the ballast pile? A hit there might mean trying to move a ton of rocks. Over the pile I went, suffering further defeat, but suddenly, like being greeted at a surprise birthday party, it happened. The needle zapped all the way to the right of the gauge as if I had just turned on my windshield wipers. Gently, ever so gently, I lifted the stone and there, clinging to its underside was an eight-inch-long coral encrusted metal spike that once held a plank in place. Fizz swam over and gave me a thumbs up. Although I didn’t find a silver ingot, I experienced a hit on a real artifact. What to do now? I stared in awe as if I were welcoming a newborn baby into the world. But I couldn’t bear to take this baby from its mother. Just as gently as I plucked it, I put it back in place. No ingots, coins or jewels for this eager salvor. But you know what? I really didn’t care. I went back in time—nearly 300 years—and fulfilled my dream of a treasure quest. What’s more, I’ll drink to that! My libation of choice? A Gin Fizz…of course!