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The Treasure Hunters

Before You Invest in a Search for Sunken Treasure, Find Out What You Are Diving Into
Montieth M. Illingworth
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Winter 95/96

Clyde Hensley planes through the mangrove shallows, the stern of his open-air Pursuit weighed down by two sleek 200-horsepower outboards gunned full throttle. "You're going to be bored out there," he yells over the roar of his engines, "unless you puke first." Hensley, who bears a striking resemblance to a thinner David Crosby, is my charter captain, hotelier and local lore guide. With a hack-hack-a-hack laugh intended to make seasickness seem like good ol' boy fun, he veers off, heading for open water.

It's about 9 a.m., the summer sun is bearing down and in the distance huge, billowing clouds a half-mile high loom across the horizon. I've got a stomach full of eggs, toast and coffee, plus one little pink 25-milligram Bonine pill that is supposed to prevent the food from backtracking once we hit the wide-open sea of the Florida Straits. We set out from Key West and are heading due west about 35 miles. Our destination is a secret place on the naval charts where, just the week before, a crew of divers pulled up $1.2 million worth of uncut Muzo emeralds that sank with a Spanish galleon in a 1622 hurricane. I'm being taken first to the "barge" where I'll wait for the JB Magruder, a ship that will ferry me to the dive site.

The operation is run by Mel Fisher who, after a 16-year search, found the ship's "mother lode" in 1985. Since then he's recovered, by his own account, $400 million worth of items listed on the ship's manifest. That includes gold bars, coins, jewelry and many other artifacts. The emeralds, which were being smuggled on board and were not listed, may ultimately exceed that figure once the entire cache he thinks is there is found.

Even without the remaining gemstones, Fisher is by far the most successful and well known "salvor" in the world. At 72, he is also the grand old man of a swashbuckling trade that is quickly changing. Disappearing into the past is the era of the lone adventurer with a dream and a good marketing motto by which to attract investors (in Fisher's case "Today's the Day!"). Replacing him are corporations armed with the best search and recovery technology and some of the sharpest financial officers. Although there's lots of fine print in their prospectuses, they are finding a lot more treasure, which is helping do away with the business' shadowy past and develop the market for sea treasure.

Today, I'm not expecting boring. I'm thinking more of adventure, of being there when they find an emerald. Call it a romantic desire to touch a piece of the bloody legacy of Spain's search for El Dorado. Second only to money, romance is what this business feeds on, which is both a good and bad thing. If you have ever thought of investing in a treasure search or buying recovered artifacts, caution is the word. As much as your heart will tell you to spend, your brain should have the final word.

We hit the open water and are met by calm seas. Within an hour I spot the Marquesas, a collection of tiny islands with no inhabitants but lots of mosquitoes. We approach a 110-foot-long barge moored a few hundred yards off one of the islands. Hensley pulls up alongside, lets me off and with a hack-hack-a-hack blasts off. There's a plywood cabin at one end. I am met by Robbie Hanna, 30, a diver with a long, red ponytail and a big barrel chest. He's the only one on board. He's house-sitting until the next shift arrives. Hensley was right. Bobbing about with Hanna and watching the barracudas swim by is boring.

Late Renaissance Spain's search for El Dorado had a simple logic: Take slaves and finished goods to the New World and bring back much needed gold and silver to finance wars, pay back loans from Italian bankers, and stabilize the monetary system. The problem was always getting the stuff to Europe. The route was pretty simple. The ships left Colombia or Mexico, then stopped in Havana to pick up escort vessels. The most dangerous part of the journey was getting through the Florida Straits. The idea was to ride the Gulf Stream until the westerlies filled the sails and carried them across the Atlantic. But if a storm hit, and in the late summer and fall many did, whole fleets would be tossed into the coral reefs, shoals and outcropping rocks of the Florida Keys.

On Sept. 4, 1622, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, among other ships, set out from Havana. It met a hurricane and sank just off the Marquesas. Among salvors, the fate of the ships was well known. Their whereabouts were not. In 1968, Fisher committed to finding them. It would take years of fruitless searching and a battle with Florida for ownership of the site, which Fisher appealed to the Supreme Court and won. The search also cost the life of his son and daughter-in-law in a boating accident. But Fisher eventually found the mother lode of 47 tons of gold and silver bars and coins, plus a small handful of rough emeralds, jewelry and other artifacts.

News of the find made Fisher an instant celebrity. He appeared on "The Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson. Hollywood made a television movie based on his life. Some of the larger, more expensive objects were sold at Christie's in a June 1988 auction. Fisher had investors to satisfy, after all; a 16-year search costs money. But he was determined to find more emeralds which, he suspected, were part of a 70-pound contraband load, according to estimates from historians. In 1992 he found the first big pile.

That year Fisher formed a limited liability company, only to be sued once again, this time by the feds for using salvage methods that allegedly damaged the sea grass. The 1992 partnership fell apart. Then the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration declared the Florida Keys--the coral, the seabed, the islands, everything--a protected sanctuary. That froze almost all salvaging efforts in the area by dozens of salvors, essentially leaving hundreds of sunken ships to their underwater graves.

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