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Treasure Hunters Break Scuba Rules for $50 Million (and Atlantis)

Skirting a plume of sandy water roiled by prop wash, a diver wielding a metal detector plunges to the seabed to search for bullion and other treasure from a 17th century galleon that sank off the Florida Keys.

The dive ladder bounces up and down in the offshore surge. We’re hanging on tight, fighting the current, nearly deafened by the roar of the boat’s diesel engine. It’s revved high to send powerful jets of water down two curved metal tubes called “mailboxes,” which fit in front of the propellers. Below, on the ocean floor, the redirected prop wash is sweeping away a swath of sand 40 ft. wide.

When the noise of the engine dies down, first mate Tony Gil shouts from the deck of the 65-ft. converted lobster boat: “Ready?” I nod and put on my mask, but the other two divers have already plunged into the cloudy water—racing to the bottom and the gold that may lie there.

I’m 35 miles west of Key West, Fla., diving with Mel Fisher’s Treasures, a company named for America’s most renowned treasure hunter. Over the course of 35 years, Mel Fisher and his divers recovered gold, silver and jewels from some of the richest wrecks in the Western Hemisphere. Fisher died in 1998, but his descendants still carry on the family business. In an era when marine salvage often means remote-control rovers probing deep-water wrecks, Fisher crews find bounty from shallow waters using strategies developed by Mel decades ago. What’s surprising is that those rich, shallow waters are American. “Key West is our bread and butter,” says Mel’s grandson Sean.

Survey boats tow 4-ft.-long metal “fish” mounted with side-scan sonar, which can help locate piles of ballast rock, and cesium magnetometers, which are used to find chunks of iron from decomposing ships. When wreckage is located, the work becomes even more basic: Scuba divers with metal detectors scour the seabed and excavate artifacts by hand.

The other two divers and I are breaking all the rules I’ve mastered in years of recreational scuba diving. Loaded with more than twice my normal dive weight, I jump in without inflating my buoyancy compensator, the flotation device that controls a diver’s position underwater. I’d be concerned if we were diving deep; here, I land like a stone safely on the sand 20 ft. below.

The wreck we’re working is the Santa Margarita, which left Havana for Spain in the fall of 1622. The 630-ton galleon and another vessel in the 28-ship convoy, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, carried emeralds, gold and silver jewelry, and coins and bullion from Central and South America. The ships were anxiously awaited by the Spanish crown, embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War and nearly bankrupt. But a hurricane scattered the fleet and sank eight ships, including the two galleons, which were dashed onto reefs off Florida’s Marquesas Keys. For nearly four centuries, storms scattered and buried Spain’s lost treasure under shifting sand.

Today, expectations are high that we’ll find something valuable. Earlier this summer at the Santa Margarita site, Fisher divers discovered gold bars and chains, silver coins and a box containing about 6000 to 10,000 pearls potentially worth $20 million. According to historical records, there are at least another 155 silver bars and 80,000 silver coins valued at up to $50 million down here.

The two divers who beat me to the bottom comb the sand with metal detectors. Trailing empty-handed, I peer into crevices for hunks of black, which may be oxidized silver, and lumps of orange, which may be oxidized iron artifacts. Occasionally, one of the divers swims to the collection crate and puts something in it. After about 15 minutes, they signal to ascend.

On the surface, the lumpy white rocks in the crate take on more character. A hand-shaped chunk with an orange stain likely has an iron spike embedded in it. A rounded rock is probably an ancient iron ball lock. It turns out that a treasure hunt is actually a rock hunt: Most artifacts are encased by nearly four centuries of marine encrustation.

But not gold. It is inert, and remains unchanged after centuries of immersion. “Gold,” Mel Fisher used to say, “shines forever.”

( 1 ) On the deck of the salvage boat Blue Water Rose, off Key West, Fla., Mike Dodd (right) catalogs items recovered by the author (left) on her dive to wreckage from the galleon Margarita. ( 2 ) Spectacular loot from the Margarita and the Atocha: an 8-pound gold disk, an 8-ft.-long gold chain and a gold bar. On the disk is a 25-carat emerald. ( 3 ) The Dare, in Key West for repairs and resupply. The elbowed structures are “mailboxes,” invented in the 1960s by one of America’s pioneering treasure hunters, Mel Fisher. When lowered in front of the propellers, they direct prop wash to blast away sand that may cover artifacts. ( 4 ) Shawn Redding, captain of the survey boat Huntress, uses a magnetometer “fish” to map the seabed.

In the 1960s, Melvin A. Fisher was a scuba pioneer with mounting bills and a large family. He moved from California to Florida to help locate the source of gold coins washing up on Vero Beach on Florida’s Atlantic coast. In 1970 he established Treasure Salvors and rounded up investors who shared his dream of finding lost Spanish gold. His obsessive pursuit paid off a few years later, when he recovered treasure from the Atocha, though the majority of the ship’s cargo remained missing. Fisher’s success was dogged by legal battles over his salvaged finds and by personal tragedy: His son Dirk and Dirk’s wife, Angel, along with another crewmember, Rick Gage—all salvage divers—were lost at sea in 1975.

Five years later, Fisher found the remains of the Santa Margarita, which so far has yielded about $40 million in gold bars, silver ingots and other booty. And, in 1985, after 16 years of searching, he discovered the main hull section of the Atocha, which contained treasure worth an astounding $450 million. “There are three other ships from that fleet,” Sean Fisher says, “and the other half of the Atocha is still out there—somewhere.” The Atocha’s sterncastle held cabins for nobility and clergy—and likely most of the jewelry and gold.

But Mel Fisher sought more than sunken treasure. “It was always my grandfather’s dream to find Atlantis,” Sean Fisher says. “I’m serious. We have some idea where it is. But it’s a hard salvage operation that will cost a lot of money and resources.”

In the meantime, he has mapped enough tempting hot spots off the Keys to keep divers busy for years. Three boats anchored within about 5 miles of each other work the two galleons. I took a 1-hour speedboat ride from Key West to reach the Margarita site. I’m here for the day, but crews stay at sea for about a week, then haul their finds into Key West, provision the boat and head back out. They’re five days into this trip, already well sunburned.

On top of a monthly salary, the divers get a percentage of the year’s salvage and cash bonuses for recovering big items like gold bars. It takes a long time to search each 35-ft.-dia. section of ocean floor, but “if you’re persistent, hardworking and a little bit lucky, it can be very lucrative,” Sean Fisher says. “Plus, it’s a heck of a lot more fun than selling insurance.”

After a day of fruitless searching, I’m not so sure. My knees ache from kneeling on rocky coral. My hands are raw and scratched. Chunks of sand are buried in my scalp and suit. But I can’t stop. Earlier in the day, someone found a lump of silver coins; last week, divers found a gold bar.

Before my final dive, I hang off the ladder with Dan Porter, who works for Blue Water Ventures, a Fisher subcontractor. Porter says he has been treasure hunting since he was 18 and, judging by his shoulder-length gray hair, that was a few decades ago. Among other artifacts, he’s found a spectacular filigreed and bejeweled gold belt from the Atocha. “I keep going off to find a real job, and then keep coming back,” he says. “I know the payoff is down there.”

This time, when the engines stop, I don’t wait for the visibility to clear. Porter dives into the murky clouds and I follow, determined to find something. The bottom looms into sight, white and cratered like the moon. With his metal detector, Porter can easily tell which rocks contain artifacts. My only hope is to stay slightly ahead and recognize valuable ones by sight. I look around, and there it is, perched on a coral head: A fist-size, conical chunk of rock and rusty metal. I wave it at Porter, who gives a thumbs up.

Glancing into a hole, I see another odd-shaped rock. I flip it and there’s a telltale orange stain. Another hole, another orange chunk. Then pieces of pottery. I dump my items into the collection crate and follow the line to the surface.

On deck, Mike Dodd, the diver who recovered the box of pearls, spreads the articles on a table. Is my conical rock a crushed cup? A carpenter’s tool? He shakes his head. “Whatever it was, it’s already eaten away,” he says. After a summer of cataloging treasure, Dodd knows that my artifact isn’t worth sending to the conservation lab. My pottery probably came from jars storing olive oil. The metal?

Perhaps a spike. The odd-shaped rock is a mystery. It needs a reverse-electrolysis bath at the lab to peel off centuries of calcification.

As I pack up for the ride back to Key West, Tony Gil joins Dan Porter on the ladder. Porter is eating his lunch on the top rung, wolfing down a bowl of ravioli while the mailboxes blow. When the engine slows, the two divers eye each other as they pull on their masks. I glance away, then turn back to wave goodbye. But they’re already gone.

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