by Mike Vogel
Updated 11 months ago
Treasure Hunting:A Primer
In 1987, a lifeguard named Peter Leo, swimming off Jupiter Beach, spotted a cannon on the bottom. It led to a treasure of gold and silver and the ongoing recovery of what's known as the Jupiter Wreck. Leo, treasure hunters say, is the exception. They first find most shipwrecks in the depths of Spain's Seville archives, where they plumb old records looking for vessels that never made it home from the Americas. For a cut -- generally 1% to 5% -- the researcher turns the approximate location over to a treasure hunter.
The hunter then spends thousands or more, using magnetometers and side-scan sonar, to hunt for "hits" from submerged metal. Scores of hits result: After that, it's a matter of painstakingly searching each one to see whether it's a discarded piece of 20th-century boiler or a hull spike from a 17th-century galleon.
Near shore, divers, using the prop wash of boats to move tons of sand, create holes 50 feet in diameter to search with hand-held magnetometers.
The state of Florida must approve all of this. Treasure hunters need a contract and must pay a $600 fee just to hunt with instruments that don't disturb the bottom. A paid marine archaeologist must supervise. Another contract, at $1,200 a year, is required to remove found items. The state has the right to claim up to 20% of the find -- and gets first pick. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary regulates treasure searching in its area. Other federal waters fall under the purview of federal courts.
Ernest Kling came down with a chronic case of treasure fever nearly 20 years ago as an investor with the legendary Mel Fisher. Even falling victim to an early scam by another treasure hunter didn't cure him, and in 1988 Kling founded Historical Research and Discovery in Orlando to back an experienced treasure hunter.
The first year alone turned up 821 gold coins. "Instant success," Kling cheered. That year ended with HRD paying dividends of gold to its happy investors. The next year, 1989, brought a find of 7,000 silver coins and more dividends.
That was it. There have been no dividends in the 13 years since. The few recoveries have gone to a new round of investors brought in to keep the enterprise alive. Expenses run $35,000 to $60,000 a year. Kling, 55, uses the remaining hundred or so silver coins -- the gold's gone -- to pay the bills through the winter. "It's not realistic to think you're going to find a pile of gold coins and silver coins each year," says Kling, who fortunately didn't quit his day job as an engineer. But, he adds, "at some point, it wouldn't be too bad to get a personal income from it."
Once upon a time, the pickin's were better. Shipwrecked goods in the 1850s gave Key West the highest per capita income in the U.S. Tough entrepreneurs made an industry of "wrecking," the recovery of cargo like lumber, cotton bales and, sometimes, treasure from ships destroyed on the state's reefs and shores.
Today, however, treasure hunting is a cottage industry run mostly from the docks around Sebastian and Key West. It's long on romance and short on returns. Mostly small enterprises, maybe 50 all told, cobble together investors and funds to make a season of it. It is a mixed bunch -- some treasure entrepreneurs are in their 70s; others are young people with no families to support and little interest in working a job onshore.
At the center of the industry are treasure-hunting operations in Sebastian and Key West that were built by the late Mel Fisher. They're the most prominent businesses in the field and among the very few with any real tenure.
To understand the mechanics of the Fisher family business, start by gawking at the merchandise in its shop in a converted warehouse in Key West. An iron spike from the Spanish galleon Atocha retails for $175. The tag on an engraved golden spoon, the priciest item in the shop, reads $560,000.
Artifacts too dear? Then buy one of several books or National Geographic and A&E videos on Fisher, his odyssey or the Atocha, the 17th-century Spanish galleon he found between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. You can purchase a $15 T-shirt with his "Today's the Day" motto.
Something else you can do: Express an interest in backing the Fishers' continuing hunt for the Atocha's sterncastle treasure -- the 100,000 silver coins, 300 85-pound silver bars and 35 boxes of Vatican riches that a manifest indicates were on the ship when it went down and have never been recovered. If you're a live one, shopkeepers may whet your appetite by letting you hold a long, gold chain. Only $60,000 gets you a 1% share in next year's recovery. Too steep? How about $7,500 for an eighth of a 1% share?
Investors and sales from the shop each fund half the annual $3.5-million Fisher budget for its Keys hunt. No guarantees, of course, but Kim Fisher, the organization's president and one of Mel's four sons, says the worst year for investors since the Atocha's "mother lode" was found in 1985 was break-even. The best has been a six-to-one return. "If we find the sterncastle, the potential is there for a 100-to-1 payoff," says Kim Fisher.
The relative stability and scale of the Fishers' operation is what separates it from the flotilla of Joe Lunchbucket treasure hunters. Florida coastal wrecks aren't ghost ships sitting on the bottom with tidy piles of loot ready to be lifted out in a bundle. Rather, they're miles-long veins of storm-scattered iron spikes, pottery shards and coins. Most treasure hunters are prospectors looking for such a site. The discovery of the Atocha turned Fisher from a prospector into a miner, whose 35-employee operation patiently moves tons of sand to work the Atocha's debris trail.
Kim Fisher, 46, is tall and laconic. Just a few minutes into an interview he excuses himself to get a drink of water. "I'm not used to talking that much." He ticks off expenses in Key West: Boat fuel ($5,000 a week), diver pay (starting at $350 a week), equipment ($1,200 for a hand-held magnetometer, $20,000 for the large ones towed for underwater surveys), galley food, $400,000 to overhaul the 90-foot boat last year, and $150,000 a year to clean gunk-encrusted items and then preserve them. Everything brought up from the deep needs such treatment, he says, except the gold. "The gold shines forever," he says, a hint of his father emerging.
Fisher offers to infect me with treasure fever. From a tall safe in the corner, he takes a more-than-300-year-old, 8-pound gold disc -- bullion in circular form used in the days of the Spanish Main. He sets it in my hand. It's heavy for its size. Then he takes out a centuries-old gold chain used as currency. The owner would break off a link to make purchases. Fisher lowers it, all 8 feet, 6 inches of it, link by golden link, into my cupped hands.
I feel ... nothing. Zip. Fortunately for the Fishers, plenty of people lack my immunity and catch enough treasure fever to keep the operation humming. Megan and Bob Hollingshead, a New Port Richey couple, have invested $20,000 over the past three years with Fisher. Amateur treasure divers who followed Mel Fisher's story, they made Mel Fisher's non-profit museum a regular stop on their trips to the Keys. Now, like a lot of investors, they spend their vacation diving with Fisher's crews.
The Hollingsheads personally have found emeralds, pottery shards and a pewter plate. They and the other Fisher investors don't get their returns in cash: A computer program divides up the annual Fisher haul among investors using a point system. The spring event, a first-class bash called the "division party," brings the investors, the Fishers, their staff and the loot together. The Hollingsheads display, rather than sell, their share.
The investment check "is not an easy check to write," says Megan Hollingshead, 34, but they never think twice. The "love of it" is too strong. Kim Fisher says 80% of investors return each year. "Most of them are in it for the fun," he says.
Surviving on optimism
As finely tuned as the Fisher machine is, it remains a small business that's "still having trouble making paychecks," says Vice President Pat Clyne. But even having a payroll to meet puts them a rung above most in their industry. "Don't ever go into salvage with the idea of making money, because you won't," says 77-year-old Bob "Frogfoot" Weller, a veteran of the Florida treasure scene and himself a hunt organizer.
As in most gold rushes, supplying the prospectors is more lucrative than prospecting. Lost in the newspaper and TV coverage of dazzling finds is the one-fifth share that goes to the state and the cost of lawyers, contractors, suppliers, captains and workers.
Still, plenty try to make a go of it. As a breed, they share common experiences: Many, like Kling, invested with the Fishers or worked with them. Each says he's regularly approached by someone with a hot "tip" about a lost ship that carried Nazi gold. Kim Fisher says he dumps them in his Wild Geese file -- as in "wild goose chase." Past regulatory encounters with the government aren't uncommon. They noodle over ways to scratch out more income -- speaking engagements, exhibitions, treasure-hunting trips for tourists. They all seem to be writing a book.
The treasure hunters also have common traits: They're good storytellers and welcome publicity. And they are eternally optimistic, with the big payday always just around the corner. "We are very close to making a major discovery," says Tom Gidus, 40, once a subcontractor to Fisher now with his own Wreckovery Salvage based in Orlando.
They also need a day job. "I make my money here to spend it down there," says Kevin Drogan, 41, owner of a Cincinnati underwater construction and demolition company. He has spent ("I'd really hate to think") $700,000 searching a 6-square-mile area off Fort Pierce and 1-square-mile in the Keys for five years.
Even when they find something, treasure isn't easy to convert to cash. Assuming clear legal title -- a big assumption at times -- auction houses prefer a large collection of goods to generate excitement for a sale. That's difficult when a treasure trove is divvied up among numerous investors. An abundance of a particular old coin -- say, a galleon full of them -- can drive the price of each individual coin in the direction of its bullion value. It may be treasure, but it's not priceless. "That's always a bit of a reality shock when I'm talking to treasure finders," says David Redden, Sotheby's vice chairman. "The mere fact that the material is found undersea isn't enough anymore."
Hunters vs. academics
Meanwhile, treasure hunters face pressure from academic archaeologists who see the business as the ravaging of cultural resources for personal gain. The archaeologists -- and many governments -- say wrecks should stay on the bottom, preserved under sand and mud, until archaeologists get to them. Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Israel, Portugal and others don't allow treasure hunting in their waters. A UNESCO group last year adopted a convention that moved toward banning the practice.
Treasure hunters scoff right back at purists they see as less interested in public enjoyment of treasure and history than in keeping wrecks as their private venue for professional advancement. "We can do not only a better job but a quicker job in recovery, preservation and conservation than they can, and we can do it without the taxpayer paying a dime for it," says Clyne, the Fisher vice president. "They want to box up all the coins and store them in a warehouse."
The synthesis of the private sector/academic camps, some argue, lies in co-venturing explorations with governments. In its fourth year of searching in 2001, Odyssey Marine Exploration, working with the British navy, discovered what it hopes is the HMS Sussex on the Mediterranean sea floor. The Sussex sank in 1694 as it supposedly was transporting tons of gold coins to pay the Duke of Savoy to battle France. Odyssey, a publicly traded company, reached an agreement in October with the United Kingdom on how to recover it and split the valuables.
Odyssey co-founder Greg Stemm calls what his firm does "private-sector archaeology" and stresses the care that will be taken with finds. "It's the right thing to do, and as typically happens, the right thing to do tends to benefit the company and the investors from every direction."
The hunters vs. academics conflict may soon be moot, however. By Stemm's calculation, of all the ships lost through the centuries, there are likely only a couple hundred sunken ships with cargoes of "high intrinsic value" with some data available on where they went down. Of those, only 20 to 30 are "economically viable" for hunters.
Thanks to innovations from the petroleum engineering field, technology is increasing in prowess and dropping in cost, and Stemm sees just a 10- to 20-year window before most of the lucrative wrecks are found and recovered. If so, the academic archaeologists can have their pick of millions of other wrecks.
Odyssey's business plan is to hunt only wrecks with valuable cargo in deep water where the barriers to entry (the cost of remote-operated vehicles rather than divers) should keep out wildcatting treasure seekers.
While he seeks to bridge the gap between academics and treasure hunters, Stemm fits the treasure-hunter profile in many respects: He has a story-weaver's skill in crystallizing the importance of the Sussex. (If it had stayed afloat, "we'd still be celebrating the queen's birthday.") He's had a battle with the government over a previous find, in which he was vindicated. And, of course, he's optimistic the big recovery is just around the corner.
The biggest similarity of all? So far, Odyssey has poor returns. It has accumulated an $8.5-million deficit. "Shipwrecks are not a get-rich-quick scheme," he says. "It's really, really hard."
'TODAY'S THE DAY'
The late Mel Fisher is the prototype for just about every treasure hunter in the business.
Mel Fisher, once a chicken farmer in California, had his dream -- and loads of nightmares. He first landed in National Geographic in the 1960s when he found Spanish treasure lost off Fort Pierce in 1715. In the Keys, his organization discovered the Henrietta Marie, the only slave ship wreck found in North American waters (now being studied by a non-profit historical society that Fisher founded and bankrolled). And, in his most famous find, Fisher's group discovered the treasure galleon Atocha "mother lode" after a 16-year hunt. Its trove, as evidenced by a walk through the non-profit Fisher museum in Key West, makes for an eye-popping display of gold and gems.
Fisher, sporting gold chains and emerald rings, ranks among Key West's most famous residents since Hemingway. He was the King of the Conch Republic and pal of songwriter Jimmy Buffett and actor Cliff Robertson, who portrayed Fisher in the forgettable Dreams of Gold: The Mel Fisher Story.
The nightmares: During the Atocha hunt, the 11-year-old son of a National Geographic photographer was sucked into a propeller and killed. The Atocha quest also took the lives of Fisher's son Dirk, daughter-in-law Angel and diver Rick Gage. Two leaky valves, one for the toilet, sent their vessel to the bottom as they slept.
Even on land, the elements weren't kind. Fisher spent as much time raising money from investors to keep his fragile business afloat as hunting for treasure. Unpaid crews walked off the job. The power company cut off electricity for non-payment. Newspapers generated reams of investigative reports as rivals tarred him. The state and federal government fought him in court before Fisher finally won in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Fisher's battles weren't gentlemanly tussles on fine points of admiralty law but vicious brawls played out in the press, with Fisher on the receiving end of unfounded accusations and innuendo. There were SEC and state investigations. "He was the eternal optimist," says Fisher's son Kim. "He had his dream, his goal. When the negative stuff happened, he'd just kind of push it off to the side. Every day he told us, 'Today's the day.' "
Treasure hunters of all stripes say Fisher's doggedness made possible their work today. But shortly before his death in 1998 from bladder cancer, the state scored a small victory. It charged that Mel Fisher's shop sold goods allegedly from a 1733 fleet that in fact had been newly minted by a man in Deerfield Beach. Fisher said he'd been duped, and his company pleaded no contest.
Fisher wasn't all that wealthy for a man who found $400 million in treasure. The majority of the fortune went to investors. Fisher and his wife, Deo, a record-holding diver, gave treasure valued at $60 million to $70 million to the non-profit they created. Says treasure hunter and longtime acquaintance Bob "Frogfoot" Weller, "I know for a fact Mel really didn't have a lot of money."
THE TREASURE HUNTERS
The number of people or companies authorized to hunt and recover treasure in Florida waters is quite small and is dominated by Mel Fisher's organization.
Aside from the Atocha and Santa Margarita, the Fishers hold the legal rights to work an area on the Treasure Coast where a fleet went down in 1715 and Mel Fisher got his start in 1963. Fisher's daughter, Taffi Abt, heads the effort with a few boats and also charges subcontractors $1,000 a year plus half their haul to work the site. In the short Atlantic season, as many as 30 boats with 150 workers dot the shallow waters. This year's take: A half-dozen gold coins, a couple hundred silver coins, a silver plate and some trinkets. "I wouldn't say it was a fantastic year," says Abt. But, she says, looking forward to next year, "There's plenty of treasure out there." Here are some other treasure hunters:
Doug Pope, 54, was so taken with treasure hunting that he borrowed $1.2 million to build a four-story vessel that can raise itself on pilings like a drilling platform for six-week stays at sea. A retired cabinet shop owner and helicopter pilot, Pope says he's sure he'll find a galleon in the north Florida area that he's contracted from the state. His vessel currently is 27 miles west of Key West, subcontracting to the Fishers on the already-salvaged Margarita, which Pope still hopes will yield $100 million in treasure.
Galleon Artifacts Corp. of Leominister, Mass., has searched near Cape Canaveral for 11 years for ships from the 1715 fleet, says shareholder Bruce M. Glinski, a 56-year-old Massachusetts paper company account executive. "We've found a lot of great-looking doors, tires," Glinski deadpans. "We've had a wonderful time in Florida, a lot of laughs -- I don't know if they equal the dollars spent." To date: More than $2 million.
Part-year Long Key resident Kevin Drogan feeds his treasure-diving addiction with paychecks from his Cincinnati company, Advanced Aquatics, that does underwater work for the Army Corps of Engineers and others. "I have to work my butt off to work my butt off," says Drogan, 41. His exploration company, Eurisco, has held a state exploration permit for federal waters near Fort Pierce for five years and has spent $700,000 looking without finding gold or silver.
Unique among state exploration permit holders, Vone isn't after treasure. It's a non-profit run by "blue-collar" guys interested in history, reef preservation and marine archaeology, says Vone President Stephen Attis, a 44-year-old telecom worker. "We're diving an unbelievable amount of days and hours to look at junk." Treasure hunters want his Broward area; he wants to recover a ship's anchor and donate it to the public.
Keys dentist Ronald Molinari has been patiently working, mostly alone, for years on the San Jose y las animas, a merchant ship that sank in 1733. The 60-year-old says it's "more of an archaeological operation than a treasure operation. I'm interested in artifacts." He holds one of the few state salvage permits.