Booty Call The treasure hunt is back, stoked by fresh advances in deep-sea technology and an old-fashioned lust for loot

July 06, 2003

We split, we split!--Farewell my wife and children!--Farewell,
brother!--We split, we split, we split!
--WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, The Tempest

Hunting for shipwrecks has long been a spectacularly speculative
endeavor, a business in which starry-eyed, web-footed dreamers
tap investors for huge amounts of money, spend it prolifically
(sometimes profligately) and, odds are, find nothing. The
difficulties of even locating a treasure ship in the dark world
of the ocean bottom--about which we know as much as, say,
Pluto--are enormous, never mind the tasks of excavation and
preservation and the gnarly questions of ownership. Seafaring
nations took it seriously when one of their ships carrying gold
and silver from the New World went down, but crafts that sank in
water at depths below about 50 feet, beyond the reach of divers,
were essentially lost, presumably forever. ¶ But forever is no
more. Technological advances--deep-water submersibles, ROVs
(remote-operated vehicles), GPSs (global positioning systems),
side scan sonar technology--have brought new depth to gold
digging and, with it, the promise of billions in booty.
Governments, which heretofore found shipwreck retrieval about as
reliable a means of generating revenue as carting taxpayer money
to Vegas and dumping it on 18 black, are now interested in going
after their sunken ships, or, at least, going into business with
someone who will do it for them. The top names in the field--the
foremost among them being Robert Ballard, the Mystic, Conn.,
marine archaeologist who in 1985 famously located the Titanic in
more than 12,000 feet of water southeast of Newfoundland--are
actively searching for wrecks. Ballard recently found a
2,400-year-old sailing ship, probably of Greek origin,
remarkably well preserved in the Black Sea, but, alas, with no
riches inside it.

In the biggest ongoing treasure-hunting news, sometime later this
summer an ROV belonging to Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa is
scheduled to begin its descent to the bottom of the Mediterranean
Sea near the Strait of Gibraltar. It will be guided by surface
controls to an unassuming pile of rusted cannon and artifacts a
half mile deep that the Odyssey searchers hope belong to the HMS
Sussex, a British gunship that lost a battle with the elements
three centuries ago. The Sussex is believed by some--especially
by those who are hunting for it and also by the British
government, with which Odyssey made a prediscovery deal granting
the company a cut of any gold or artifacts found at the site--to
hold the richest cache of any shipwreck yet discovered, as much
as $4 billion worth of gold coins.

The search for the Sussex illustrates the new deep-water
direction in shipwreck hunting, one unknown a half-century ago by
the pioneers of the game. To be sure, some shallow-water projects
are still going on. For the last 16 years Phil Masters, a
respected salvor from North Carolina, has been searching on and
off in 20 feet of water for El Salvador, a Spanish merchant ship
that in 1750 wrecked on the Outer Banks. History's most famous
treasure ship, Nuestra Senora de Atocha, much of which was
discovered off Key West in 1985 after a 16-year search by the
late Mel Fisher, remains a shallow-water source of booty for
Fisher's company. But some salvors believe that anything in
shallow water worth taking has already been taken (or, in the
case of the Atocha, over which Fisher and the state of Florida
battled for several years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in
the shipwreck hunter's favor, is legally spoken for) and that the
only place to find major league loot is beyond the reach of divers.

How much wealth is hidden way down deep? Greg Stemm, Odyssey's
cofounder, guesses that there could be three million lost ships
in the world's oceans, a figure he bases on 1,000 ships going
down per year over the last 3,000 years. Major Grant Walker, a
shipwreck expert and history professor at the United States Naval
Academy, says that in one five-year period, from 1870 to 1875,
England alone lost 5,000 ships. Even conservative estimates put
the figure of lost treasure ships in the hundreds of thousands.

What that adds up to in undiscovered plunder is incalculable but
most assuredly mind-boggling. Though much of the frame of a
sunken ship will disappear--rotted away by salt water or eaten
away by the voracious teredo worm--silver can be wiped clean, and
gold never changes no matter how long it rests in a watery
purgatory. Crazed men carrying pans committed atrocities in
search of a gleaming mineral in California's rivers and streams;
the only thing that has kept sunken treasure in place was the
impossibility of getting to it. Increasingly, wreck salvagers can
get to it, and that has piqued the interest of governments. Three
years ago Spain, with the assistance of the U.S. Justice
Department, went to a federal appellate court and legally
established its claim on two of its frigates (La Galga and Juno)
found off the coast of Virginia, snatching them from the paws of
a private salvor.

The deal between Odyssey and the United Kingdom's Ministry of
Defence took almost seven years to complete. Eighty percent of
the first $45 million worth of Sussex treasure would go to
Odyssey, accounting for the fact that the company is assuming all
of the financial risk. The next $455 million would be split
evenly between the company and the British government, with the
Brits receiving 60% of any plunder above $500 million. "The
hardest-fought negotiation was the over-$500 million," says
Stemm, whose company expects to spend as much as $4 million on
the search-and-recovery effort. "They insisted on getting more
than 50%, and we finally gave in." That gives you an idea of how
much treasure the British think might be found.

For the most part, though, the pioneers of the business cast a
jaundiced eye on this new deepwater world. They had a simpler
answer to the ownership question: We find it, we keep it.

In the early 1950s, while Mel Fisher was still a nearsighted
California chicken farmer, a man named Teddy Tucker was sifting
through the plunder of the hundreds of ships that had met their
doom on Bermuda's treacherous reefs. It was there in 1955 that he
hauled up from a Spanish wreck a magnificent gold cross studded
with emeralds, somewhat of a shot heard round the world in
treasure diving. As soon as Tucker found the gold cross, he knew
he would never have any other job except treasure hunter. He sold
the piece--as well as several other pieces of booty--to the
Bermuda government for $150,000. (Years later, when Bermuda was
shipping the cross to a maritime museum, someone stole it and
replaced it with a plastic one; the original has never been found.)

A short and powerful man, his bronzed skin mottled with
sun-darkened freckles, Tucker and his wife live about 25 yards
from the water's edge in Bermuda's Mangrove Bay. He can walk out
his front door and stare across the bay to a wharf where scenes
were shot for The Deep, a 1977 movie about the perils and rewards
of treasure hunting that was perhaps better remembered for
Jacqueline Bisset languidly skin-diving in a white T-shirt.

To some in the modern shipwreck-hunting business, Tucker, like
Fisher, is admired for his guts but branded as a pillager
interested only in lucre. There is about Tucker an air of the
bulletproof rogue, a man much like Romer Treece, the character
played by Robert Shaw in The Deep, a salty scamp, equal parts
hero and scoundrel. Like the fictional Treece, Tucker, the son of
a naval architect, carries knowledge that can only come from
decades of exploring an unknown world through the fog of a scuba
mask or tracing the path of a wreck from centuries-old scrub
marks in the coral. Among other things, Tucker can hold forth on
the chemical composition of ceramic pots; naval history;
oxidation rates of various metals; deep-sea bugs and worms; tides
anywhere on earth; and ancient shipbuilding. The museum he
founded near Hamilton, the Bermuda Underwater Exploration
Institute, stocked with Tucker-found treasure, is as edifying to
the academician as it is thrilling to the wide-eyed tourist.

But this man who knows so much now operates with bound hands.
Under a Bermuda law enacted within the last couple of years, if
Tucker locates a shipwreck within 200 miles of the island, he is
legally obligated to get a permit, hire a licensed marine
archaeologist to examine the site with him and explain to a
committee why he should be allowed to do the excavation under the
guidance of the archaeologist. It's as if Madame Curie needed
permission to fiddle around with a Bunsen burner, and Tucker will
simply not play an old game by new rules. "These days, when I
look for something, I just don't find it," he says, a twinkle in
his eye. "The men who made treasure hunting weren't these
archaeologists, who are as full of crap as a bunch of Christmas
turkeys. And they weren't these government people, these
bureaucrats." He steps nimbly aboard one of his boats, Miss
Wendy. "They were men with dreams."

It was just after 9 a.m. on Feb. 11 when Mike Piranio's metal
detector started beep-beep-beeping. The 56-year-old scuba diver,
one of a half dozen or so under the employ of Mel Fisher
Enterprises, dug into the soft sand of the ocean bottom and
wrapped his hands around a long, narrow object encased in a
coarse, half-inch-thick block of shell and sand. His heart raced.
Piranio knew it wasn't gold--that precious mineral is inert and
nothing clings to it--but it was exciting to find anything that
no human hand had touched for almost 400 years. He surfaced, 35
feet straight up, raised his mask and climbed onto the deck of
the J.B. Magruder, which was anchored 36 miles due west of Key
West. It was a beautiful morning, made more beautiful by the find.

Three decades ago a treasure hunter likely would have chipped
away the casement right there on the ship and seen what little
piece of history had been dug up. But these days call for more
care. Andy Matroci, the Magruder's captain, examined the piece
and figured it to be the blade of a sword or some kind of prying
tool. He fastened a yellow tag around it, marked CCC 531543. The
object was then preserved in a barrel of seawater, where it would
remain until the ship came to shore the following day.

The Atocha divers are now following a trail that heads northwest,
working an area about six miles from where the main treasure was
found on July 20, 1985, a spot marked by a green spar buoy. At
that point, Fisher had been looking for what he called "the
mother lode" or "the main pile" for a decade and a half, all the
while reciting his daily mantra: "Today's the day." To those who
had followed from afar Fisher's seemingly quixotic quest for the
Atocha, the man was a bit of a harmless loon. But around Key
West, Mel was everybody's friend, the local hero, the constable
of hopes and dreams. Only once, in 1975, six years after he began
his Atocha obsession, did Fisher consider abandoning the search.
That's when one of his salvage boats capsized in the middle of
the night, spilling three sleeping people into the Atlantic--son
Dirk, 25; Dirk's wife, Angel; and another diver named Rick Gage.
They all drowned. "Dad thought about giving it up then," says Kim
Fisher, one of two siblings in charge of the family business,
"but we knew that Dirk and the others would want us to keep going."

And on they've gone. Some on the Fisher team believe that the
stern of the Atocha--where the clergy and nobility were housed,
along with their personal effects--will be found in one piece.
The divers refer to the stern as "the other mother." Others
aren't that optimistic, but it's a fact that about one quarter
of the treasure listed on the Atocha manifest has not been
found. "If that amount of treasure were on another ship," says
Matroci, "that alone would be enough to say, 'Let's go look for
it.'"

The fourth floor of Fisher's museum in Key West is the repository
for Atocha treasure. Everything pulled from the ocean is taken
there, photographed, cataloged and preserved in fresh water with
an electrolyte solution. It might be a fastener worth next to
nothing, it might be a 10-foot-long gold chain worth $300,000, a
piece that was pulled up last year. On a recent day it was CCC
531543, which turned out to be not a sword or a tool but a
long-handled cooking skillet. "We do sound archaeology here,"
says Kim Fisher, "no matter what anyone thinks." True, but
there's a fairyland aspect to it all, too. Touring the museum
offices, you see amazing stuff just lying around on desks and
shelves: a 35-pound cannonball, gold bars worth as much as
$50,000 and, most astonishing, gleaming silver bars, the
300-year-old Spanish tax stamps and shipping information still
legible.

It's impossible to get a handle on who has made what from the
Atocha. Pat Clyne, the executive vice president for Mel Fisher
Enterprises, estimates that more than a handful of investors have
become millionaires and many more have made six figures. Matroci
bought a $250,000 home in Key West by selling off treasure (he
got $30,000 for one gold coin in mint condition) and recently
acquired a new Toyota truck through a treasure trade. Certainly
the Fisher family doesn't need to find the "other mother." But 18
years after the discovery, and five years after Mel's death from
cancer, the operation shows no sign of slowing and, for all the
changes in the game, seems as lively as ever. It took all those
years to find it, but the Atocha now seems bulletproof, the gift
that keeps on giving, invulnerable to the protests of marine
archaeologists, seductively reachable without high-tech gadgetry
yet, thanks to the '82 Supreme Court ruling, out of the reach of
governments and rival salvors. "Even if we spend every penny
looking for the rest of the Atocha," says Kim, "we couldn't
imagine giving up what my father started." He looks up, above
the door in his museum office, where a small sign celebrates THE
GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MEL. TODAY'S THE DAY. "He'd want us to keep
going."

The quests for the Atocha and the Sussex illustrate the old and
the new of treasure hunting, the former a romantically obsessive
(or obsessively romantic) search of a dreamer, the latter a
combination of high-tech investigation and high-stakes business
deal. Still, the Sussex has its mysteries. Its true mission was
largely secret when it went down in a ferocious storm in 1694,
carrying 10 tons of gold and 550 crew members, only two of whom
survived. The Brits were loath to make public what had happened,
for the gold was earmarked as a bribe to the Duke of Savoy, a
powerful man and a mercenary to the core of his soul. Great
Britain wanted his allegiance so he would not side with France in
the ongoing War of the League of Augsburg. But the bribe never
arrived, Savoy sided with France and the war ended in a
stalemate. Some historians believe that England almost certainly
would have triumphed if Savoy had fought on its side, relegating
France to a historical nonentity on the order of Luxembourg.

Stemm decided to pursue the Sussex nine years ago when a
researcher produced a document from the French consul in Livorno
indicating that the ship had gone down with a large quantity of
money. "He [the researcher] needed money, and we paid him off
quickly," says Stemm, who refuses to divulge what he paid for the
tip. There are hundreds of men and women like Odyssey's Deep
Throat, language experts who comb government and naval archives
in England, Spain, France and Portugal, looking for
anything--exchequer reports, ship manifests, personal
letters--that might provide a clue to the riches borne by a
sunken ship. Later, during his negotiations with the British,
Stemm felt even better about the Sussex's potential lucre when he
found out that the Bank of England had been formed specifically
to help the exchequer pay back the debt from the Sussex loss,
which it didn't finish doing until 1994.

Not everyone in the shipwreck world is sanguine about the
precedent set by the prediscovery deal between Odyssey and the
British government. Tucker says he would sooner sell his soul
than agree to such an arrangement. "We go down and find it, and
they take it out of our hands," says Tucker. "That's a wonderful
system."

When the Odyssey searchers begin their work, Tucker will not
exactly be rooting against them, but he won't exactly be cheering
them on, either. "Lots of times you think you have something and
you have nothing," he says. "Other times you think you have
nothing and you have something." The old treasure hunter puts his
hands on his hips and stares across Mangrove Bay. "Lots of
mysteries down there. Lots of mysteries."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER WHAT LIES BENEATH Tucker's dives have turned up everything from millions in gold to the remains of a Confederate ship (here). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER GOING UNDER The advent of ROVs has enabled shipwreck hunters such as Odyssey to probe the deep-sea bottom. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER SAVE SITUATION After each find, Matroci (above) and crew meticulously chart and preserve each object, no matter how valuable. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY HEINZ KLUETMEIER THE HUNT NEVER ENDS For all his lucrative finds, Tucker remains convinced that tomorrow will bring something bigger.

Some believe that all shallow-water treasure has been taken and
that THE ONLY PLACE TO FIND MAJOR LOOT is below the reach of
divers.

"The men who made treasure hunting aren't these archaeologists,
who are AS FULL OF CRAP AS A CHRISTMAS TURKEY."

There is about Tucker the air of THE BULLETPROOF ROGUE, a man
like The Deep's Romer Treece, equal parts hero and scoundrel.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)