Fascinated by all the odd relics of shipwrecks, a veteran explorer works six hours a day below, nearly drowns once a week, and meets some really queer fish
October 04, 1954

Many morning between eight and nine, as the rest of the country heads for work, 40-year-old Art McKee of Treasure Harbor, Florida, is 15 feet underwater riding on the prongs of an anchor into his own peculiar work world. Trailing almost weightlessly over the bottom, like an oversize fish bait, is close to the average man's ideal of a cool, clean and quiet way of getting—or being dragged—to work. For McKee, the country's foremost shipwreck explorer, anchor riding is sometimes the only means of finding the job he left yesterday, particularly in rough water when visibility is poor. On those days McKee gets such a ride as no jostled commuter should ever suffer. "Come down hard on a fluke when it is coming up," says McKee, "and you really feel like fish bait."

Once he has found his wrecksite, McKee spends the rest of the day, interrupted by a 15-minute break topside to eat and dry out his water-shriveled skin, rigging equipment and picking into the past—two or three centuries, maybe more.


It is a strange workday in a green water world, amid an odd crowd of hangers-on. At one wreck the same mutton snapper, 10 pounds of mute and stupid curiosity, hangs motionless day after day, watching over his shoulder. Sheeny baitfish school through his air bubbles. Towards afternoon mottled groupers emerge from the coral, a few joining the mutton snapper in a dumb appraisal of McKee's progress. Above him cero mackerel circle and never stop. Like a prowling office manager whose very look bespeaks evil, a barracuda comes from nowhere, darts off, darts back, flashes a fine set of teeth, then as suddenly disappears. A hammerhead shark moves out of the green infinity in slow circles and withdraws. McKee gives each a glance, feels for the sheath knife on his hip and keeps on digging. At this point in his persistent enthusiasm for picking into history, McKee's intimates figure it would take a mermaid troop on bridled porpoises to bring him out of his crouch in the sand.

It can be rewarding work—that is, if you include among the worth-while rewards all relics and memorabilia in a vast range from 3,000-pound frigate cannons to fragments of an archaic chamber pot. In eight years, from 17 ancient wrecks, McKee has brought up 40 tons: a 17-foot, 2½-ton anchor; 18 cannons; over 400 cannonballs; flintlocks, pistols and swords; gold doubloons; silver pieces-of-eight; wine-jug, rum-bottle and china-plate fragments; tackle blocks; pewter plates and cups; belt and shoe buckles and worn boot heels; cutlery, inkwells, figurines and religious medals; copper and silver ingots; a ton of lead; gold rings, earrings and brooches; human teeth, beef bones and elephant tusks. These are the rewards which may be struck suddenly in quantity or singly after hours of hunting. "I don't know how much I've walked over and left down there," McKee says. "I used to be a pay diver, but this stuff gets you. It's history you can touch."

The bulk of McKee's recoveries, appraised intrinsically, would not fetch scrap-dealer prices. But as collector's items and as historical documentation the worth is often inestimable. The chief value even of the gold and silver lies not in the metal but in the circumstances under which it was found and the gap it might fill in a museum or important private collection.

After three centuries, during which hundreds of English, French and Spanish ships were trafficking, pirating, fighting and sinking in the Caribbean, popular fancy is inflamed most, of course, by the thought of gold, silver, and jewels of the East on the bottom. The world is full of dreamers who would go down and make a killing. It was just such a treasure fever boiling in someone else's blood that propelled McKee into his present career.


In the late 30s, Art McKee, a barrel-chested pay diver with a lean face and the orange hair of a Scotch-Irishman, was fighting a six-knot tide laying the Navy's underwater pipeline to Key West. On the edge of the old Spanish Main, this tip of Florida naturally had a double share of wild-eyed treasure zealots. "Ten or 15 a year, they came up with a crazy look," McKee remembers. "They know where it is. You dive for it, they'd say, and split 50-50. I'd tell them to go away. I was making good money." Then in 1938 one of them—a New Yorker who, possibly because of revenue collectors, preferred to be known as plain "Jack"—was more convincing: McKee was guaranteed one thousand dollars to dive for silver bars hidden in pitch on a Spanish galleon. It was a pushover job—a reef in shallow, glass-clear water.


But on his first look around, McKee was utterly disappointed. He hadn't expected an intact hull—he knew too much for that. But there was almost nothing. A stretch of round stones and two coral-encrusted cannons. That was all.

Even McKee, for all his experience, was not allowing for some very considerable factors. For one, when a ship strikes a reef, it may start to break up, reel drunkenly clear, losing cargo with each roll, until it finally founders. Rather than a compact site, it may leave a trail of litter. Moreover, little of ship or cargo will withstand the corrosive chemistry of the sea. Drifting sand and encrusting coral will preserve the shape of a relic but not always its physical composition. Lead and gold hold up well, but little else.

Ninety feet down the side of the reef where he found almost nothing on his first treasure dive, McKee could dimly see two more cannons. Five hours a day he swung a pick into the side of the reef. On the third day, near the bottom, a large sheet of coral broke off. "On the inside were marks like barrel staves," McKee recounts, "and it was black like pitch where it fell away. I swung the pick and hit a gold doubloon."


In chunks of pitch McKee brought up 1,600 gold and silver coins and got 63 of them as a bonus. It was a lucky wreck, at least until Employer Jack, cracking out whisky to celebrate on a return trip, fell down the ship's ladder and broke his leg. To coin collectors who later examined, coveted and bought some of McKee's bonus share, a broken leg was scarcely justice. In fact, hearing the end of the story, they would like to grind all of Jack into a fine paste. "Maybe income tax," McKee relates, "but anyway, Jack melted his coins." The whole treasure was never examined but it roughly figures that Jack had melted over $10,000 in coins to get about $2,000 in bullion. "I told that to the Miami coin collectors," says McKee, "and a great groan went up, like somebody missing an extra point in football."

After such a haul on his first old wreck, McKee proved he was only human. In the 40s he gradually forsook pay diving for treasure hunting, prowling from one wrecksite to another, most of them located on tips from local fishermen who had worked over round rocks but never figured them as the ballasts of old ships. In the past eight years McKee's interest has been transformed: as his treasure fever cooled at five fathoms and deeper, he became more and more fascinated by all the old relics. This does not mean that McKee, who has found more than $3,000 in silver on a single site, has ever, or will ever, step over an ingot to pick up a pewter inkwell. It is a normal transfer of interest. Like any man who ever went into an attic trunk looking for an heirloom to hock, he is bound to emerge with a whole armful of wonderful junk from the past.

As a man equally devoted to silver bars and inkwells, McKee is now president of the incorporated Museum of Sunken Treasure in the Keys and an ally of curators, numismatists and historians. Anyone whose treasure fever jumps, as McKee's once did, can easily cool off and possibly die of exhaustion by working below with him. Just getting things ready requires the brawn and savvy of an oil rigger and the agility of a gibbon. Until this year, McKee's digging was tedious, a half-blind groping in the silt stirred up by jetting the sand away with a water hose. Discovering that, after years when a wreck shook like a giant sifter in rough seas, the small relics have often trickled beneath the ballast and even under the hull planks, McKee sought some way of mining deep in the sand. This lead to a fanciful arrangement of suction pipe, ropes, anchors, buoys and a wire cage large enough for a family of orangutans. Now the sand is sucked away through the cage, which will trap anything as small as a button. However, in rough water the whole thing twists and fights to stay free, and McKee toils half a day, scrambling crablike across the bottom, crawling in and out of the cage, resetting anchors and guy ropes, and hanging upside down, feet entwined in one rope to give his weightless body traction to pull on another.


McKee usually has one or two helpers; but by midafternoon while he tunnels under the hull and pitches aside ballast rocks (which underwater is like shot-putting with bottle corks into a high wind), everyone else is done in. As night approaches, miles from home the crew fidgets. McKee's dock lies beyond a channel through one-foot shoals and jutting coral heads, haphazardly marked by Coke bottles, upended on stakes. Often McKee digs on below until the last light. "It's times like this," said Mate Wes Bradley, inching the boat through one dark night, "I wish he'd dissolve down there."

After a steady week underwater, McKee's skin has a bleached yellow cast, as if he had spent some time in the stomach of a whale. He will probably never dissolve. He has, however, run into equally improbable hazards. Though the big sharks have so far kept their distance, two six-footers once rushed him. "I didn't stab the shark," he apologizes as one might who destroyed a chickadee's nest. "The shark swam up and stuck itself on my knife. Pulled the knife out of my hand and shot away, streaming blood, the other shark chasing it, both turning over and over."

Another time, having prodded a 500-pound jewfish out of its hole with a hard oak boat hook, McKee started in. The jewfish, for all its big mouth, generally moves over for anybody, but this one came back with a rush, dumping McKee on the rocks. McKee prodded again. The jewfish bit the boat hook in half. Since a moray eel with nastier jaws lived just behind the jewfish, McKee let them have it and dug his own hole farther down. Later the hull planks over this hole caved in, pinning McKee's legs for a frantic moment until he could get his fingers on the controls of the pipe sucking sand from under him. But in five years McKee has been hospitalized only once, and that because three 20th-Century privateers, after seeing him with his treasures on a TV show, beat him unconscious on a New York sidewalk.


It is the sort of work where reticence doesn't hurt a bit, but McKee oddly thrives on sharing his enthusiasm, if not his recoveries. Many of the underwater sportsmen these days have turned to exploration. The most notable of these, Dr. George Crile Jr.—a Cleveland surgeon—and his wife first viewed McKee suspiciously as a rival. But later, in their book on amateur exploration, the Criles credited McKee with giving them the right philosophy ("Treasure to him was not just gold and silver, but all the homely little articles that people have lived by..."), as well as some good pointers. The Criles had met him unexpectedly on the wreck of an ivory slaver. McKee had come prepared for days of patient picking. Surgeon Crile had brought 25 sticks of dynamite to blast away the coral—a salvage technique comparable to dropping a five-inch salute in an incision to rid a man of gallstones. "If the Criles had let all that dynamite go," McKee says, "they'd never have lived to write a book."

McKee used to get the amateurs off his neck by sending them to the remains of the British man-of-war Winchester. The amateurs are mad for cannons and the Winchester bristled with them. Now that it has been stripped, McKee meets the problem two ways. Anyone who wants to gaup can pay to dive with him. Anyone who wants to work can come free provided he turns over any find to McKee's corporation.

It is McKee's fond fancy that someday, when grandmother has her own air lung, old wrecks will become historical monuments, bronze-plaqued and visited on Sundays (the only memorials where orators cannot intrude). McKee already is crusading toward that end with his uncontained zeal. He meets a stranger and before long they are talking wrecks because McKee seldom talks about anything else. And before much longer another man who perhaps had a mind to loaf all day has been impressed into service.


Last August, for example, there was Paul Edmonston, an art instructor at Florida State University. "This fellow McKee picks me up," Edmonston related. "I was hitchhiking to Key West to do water colors. He starts talking about his diving. We stop while he gets a haircut, then again to pick up ice. He's telling me more. We stop to pick up this boy who helps him and to check on a motor. Then we almost have an accident—car coming right at us—and McKee talking away about diving. I tell him I have been spearfishing once—I guess that was my mistake. McKee tells me he is working a wreck now. I say that I am going to Key West to sketch. He tells me a man he knows paints underwater, and I tell him I only have water colors and they won't work in water. He suggests we get an iron easel and try something welders use to mark things underwater. 'Don't worry,' he says, 'we'll rig something up.' Then I knew I'd never get to Key West. Now, after being underwater with him, I can't hear a damn thing in one ear. This McKee," Edmonston concluded, "isn't a diver. He's a recruiter for the Spanish Armada."

PHOTOPETER STACKPOLETREASURE DIVER ART McKEE PHOTOPETER STACKPOLERIDING AN ANCHOR to work, McKee trails below boat to scan bottom closely for wrecks hidden in coral. He wears a sweater against jellyfish stings and carries knife for sharks. PHOTOPETER STACKPOLEExploring an ancient wreck is no one-day job. After ten weeks in the rubble of one Spanish galleon, McKee is still uncovering cannons and coins
SLIVER BUCKLE scarcely seems worth two hours' digging beneath the galleon hull, but going deeper in next two days McKee found 45 silver coins and 500 pounds of smelted copper.
PHOTOPETER STACKPOLE[See caption above.]
A 3,000-POUND CANNON that was buried three feet under the sand is slowly winched up, scattering a startled school of bait-fish as it pounds against the round ballast rocks of the disintegrated galleon. McKee, who once had a similar load slip its cable, also moves well away as he tries to work his airline free of the cannon muzzle.
PHOTOPETER STACKPOLEA "HOT SPOT" of treasure six feet under the hull planks brings McKee out to turn on his latest device for deeper and faster digging: a suction pipe which pulls everything to the surface, then sifts the valuables from the sand in a basket 30 feet away. PHOTOPETER STACKPOLERELICS OF A LOST FLEET
PIECES OF EIGHT from wreck of 1733 Spanish treasure fleet are McKee's rarest find. Only 10 such 1732 pieces are known to curators, who feel McKee may find many more as he digs on, since this fleet carried millions in silver.
PHOTOPETER STACKPOLE[See caption above.]
SILVER AND PEWTER relics—a coral-encrusted silver dish and (clockwise) a tankard, silver statuette, spoons and forks, inkwell, sand shaker (to dry ink), and bowl—were found on same wreck as coins above. Because this ship was dated by coins and archive records, these battered utensils are valued highly by historians to help date other wrecks where similar relics are found.
PHOTOPETER STACKPOLEGOLD MEDAL honoring canonization of Peruvian Archbishop Turibius in 1726 was found off Florida by McKee 228 years later.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)