If you have ever searched on a beach for lost items with a metal detector you know how addicting it can be. Try being a treasure diver! The job of a lifetime, complete with wild stories to tell the grandkids one day. Anger, tears and hurt feelings are a part of those stories still.
Known as the plate fleet of 1715, due to carrying silver or plata, the flotilla was one of the richest ever. The fleet of 12 ships carried a cargo of 14 million pesos in gold, silver and jewels as well as tobacco and spices. In the evening of July 30, 1715, seven days after departing from Havana, Cuba, eleven of the twelve ships of this fleet were lost to a hurricane off of the coast of Florida. Around 1,000 sailors perished while a small number survived on lifeboats.
Modern day treasure hunters are a breed of their own. Most keep secrets, lie and boast on a daily basis, and “bad blood” between treasure hunters could be found at any given time. These are not terrible traits, just part of being a treasure hunter.
Our salvage company was one of the sub-contractors working under the family of the famous treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, hero to many as the founder of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha in 1985 found off of Key West, Florida. The 1715 fleet had also been awarded to Mel by the U.S. Government.
My home away from home was a large, four story, 130-ton jack-up barge. An odd looking vessel from a distance but it had many advantages. Able to jack up above the waves made for a stable home and lessened the need to go to port during bad weather except to fuel up. Equipped with washer & dryer, water maker, satellite dish with internet service as well as private cabins of our own was certainly a plus and the place we called home.
It was always a real hoot to see the faces of beach goers as I toted my Pelican case to the waters edge as if heading to a business meeting…. or a drug deal. Sunbathers and kids flocked around asking “What are ya’ll doing out there”, “What’s it like looking for treasure?”, “Can we take a tour of the boat?” An hour later I would make the swim out to boat and climb the massive ladder along side.
Our mornings started at daylight readily dressed in dive clothes, mine being gym shorts, sport bra and cut off t-shirt. The day’s plan was discussed and agreed upon around the galley table with lots of coffee. As we congregated on the deck, the salt air burned our eyes while watching the seagulls circling overhead, spinner sharks jumping and the occasional dolphin meandering by.
Assembled on deck complete in hard hats, the crew awaited the captain to position the boat for digging holes. This was determined by previous magnetometer readings and the GPS coordinates which sat atop the 10-ton crane on the front deck. The excavator was made up of two large propellers. It was then lifted up and over a targeted area by the crane. After a quick dive to make sure we were not working on or near live bottom that would endanger the sea life, the whirling of the blades and hydraulics would roar and it was business as usual.
Equipped with our metal detectors, we swam in zero visibility down to the holes we had just blown and searched for metal objects. Besides standing in the air-conditioned galley in our sand filled wet clothes to eat lunch, we worked in the dangerous conditions until the afternoon storms rolled in or it became too dark to see.
Daily life on board was usually pretty cool. Surprisingly we managed to got along fairly well. Investors came out anytime, being allowed to dive as if they were certified divers. Other treasure hunters occasionally dropped by for lunch or for the night and family members joined us from time to time to show their support while enjoying the sights and sounds of the beach and ocean.
Some evenings were spent around the galley discussing a better plan as to where to hunt next, maintenance issues or to discuss what had been found recently. Nights were usually made up of showers, dinner, the limited 3 beers or glasses of wine allowed and then TV or reading until the generators were shut down at 10pm to save fuel. Most of us never made it until 10:00 so the crew rotated the shut down procedures too.
It’s not as glorious as one might think. Bad weather kept us out of the water, sometimes for weeks on end. If we were one of the lucky ones, we made it to shore before the weather kicked up. But that also meant we might not make it back out to the boat for a while to resume our daily pay. For those on board housekeeping and boat maintenance were the usual chores during those times. If really bad weather came through we hunkered down in our cabins to wait it out. During tropical storms our food was sent out from the beach in 5-gallon buckets tied to a long rope and pulled out by hand. The galley cabinets often offered only what was left of food none of us wanted. But we did have our priorities; there was always beer and wine for the nights.
Over time the company seemed to loose interest in treasure hunting and after being diagnosed with breast cancer, I spent less and less time on the boat. Salvage didn’t offer the luxury of insurance so I made the decision to have a bi-lateral mastectomy preformed in Lima, Peru due to the low cost of health care there. After almost a year in Peru I returned to Florida. Ties were eventually severed when a $25,000 loan to the company went unpaid for months due to lack of funds.
Suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and the worst economic disaster in years I found it hard to secure a job. I rented out my home and moved to another state to find work, which was pretty easy if you’re used to sitting at a desk from 9 to 5, I wasn’t.
Now, after three years away from my daily water world, I look forward to an upcoming salvage project with fellow treasure hunters working off of a Central America Coast. I can’t wait to wake up each morning with the hopes of finding treasure in that next hole. As we used to say, “I’d tell you where but then I’d have to kill you”.