Treasure hunters chasing golden dreams

When it comes to legends of the undiscovered treasure from the 1715 Spanish fleet, optimism is like Old Faithful.

The boats are repainted, the air tanks are full and the excitement is rising, as it does at the start of each treasure-hunting season in May.

Divers want to get out soon to see how the sands have shifted under the ocean off Florida’s east coast, hoping bountiful sites haven’t been covered and that new sites may have been unburied.

“It’s always a turkey shoot,” said Robert “Frogfoot” Weller, 80, a treasure diver for decades, now retired. “The American dream is to have a great day at the beach and to find some treasure, too. There’s still a lot of it out there to find.”

The Treasure Coast, stretching roughly from Brevard County’s southern border to Jupiter, takes its name from the “gold fever” that struck here almost 50 years ago.

In 1959, treasure hunter Kip Wagner found what is believed to be the site of an encampment for Spanish salvagers recovering items from a fleet that went down only a few miles off the coast in a 1715 storm.

Since the 1960s, divers, both professionals and amateurs, and beachcombers have found millions of dollars in silver and gold coins, jewelry and everyday items likely from the 1715 fleet on beaches and in waters.

Many items are displayed at the McLarty Museum, near the survivors’ camp at Sebastian Inlet, and at Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum in Sebastian.

Despite the many finds, treasure hunters say there’s still plenty of loot unrecovered. Most believe three to four ships haven’t been found and, they say, two ships alone showed registered cargo of more than 220 tons in “pieces of eight,” silver coins that were Spanish currency.

Also, a dowry of jewels and other treasures for the queen that the fleet was carrying from the Americas hasn’t been located.

“There’s still tens of millions of dollars worth of stuff to be found,” said 40-year diver John Brandon of Fort Pierce, who’ll head out again this year.

The past two seasons have been poor in the water. More was found on beaches after the hurricanes that ate down the dunes by several feet. In the three days after Hurricane Frances, coins and jewelry valued at $500,000 were recovered by people with metal detectors.

“But they’ve been pumping and dumping sand on the beaches all year long, so for treasure hunters, I think this year is going to be bleak,” said Mitch King, vice president of the Treasure Coast Archeological Society. “They’ll have to search through new sand that’s 10 feet deep and 50 feet wide in places.”

The 2005 diving season, usually wrapping up at the end of September, started late and ended early because of poor underwater visibility caused by the most active recorded tropical storm season. That season also damaged some diving boats and docks where they were moored.

After the expense of repairs, the rest of the season was not good, with rough waters and murky conditions. Brandon said he had only five good days, and subcontractors with the salvage company founded by famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher averaged 16 diving days all season.

In the last three days of last season, Brandon found an intricate gold flower chain and olive jar shards that make him believe he has a new site.

“It was in new territory not excavated yet, so I’m excited to get out and see what’s there,” he said.

This season could be challenging as well, with high fuel prices combining with worries about hurricane-force winds or other tropical storms.

“If it’s a questionable day, they’re going to stay at dock,” said Rex Stocker, a “treasure finder” for more than 40 years. He said fuel can cost $400 a day.

Doug Pope, a subcontractor for Mel Fisher’s, plans to salvage on Amelia Island first and make his way to Indian River County in July or August.

He’s philosophical in his season prediction: “It’s always a good year. Sometimes, it’s a great year.”

Originally published by Florida Today

Category - Informative
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