Billion-dollar race to find  world's sunken treasure

In 1985 after 16 years, Mel Fisher finally discovered the ‘bank of Spain’ – more than 40 tons of silver and gold worth a total of US$450 million. A new treasure-hunting generation is now keen to repeat Fisher's success.

By Andy Round

For centuries the coins lay undisturbed, littered across the seabed hundreds of feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. And then along came Greg Stemm. Using sophisticated remote-controlled underwater robots, a team from Stemm’s American company Odyssey started to recover the treasure. After three weeks of painstaking retrieval, the full extent of the haul was revealed – more than 500,000 gold and silver coins. Once on land, the 17 tons of treasure were packed into 500 airtight five-gallon cases, taken by trucks to a privately charted Boeing 757 and whisked away.

 

The haul taken from the wreck code-named ‘Black Swan’ is now believed to be the largest deep-ocean treasure recovery to date. “We have not placed any monetary value on the coins,” says Stemm, speaking from Odyssey’s American base. “However, an independent coin expert who inspected a small sample of the silver coins estimated retail pricing to range from several hundred to US$4,000 per coin depending on condition.” The evaluation is ongoing, but the maths are staggering. That’s more than 500,000 coins. Some reports have put the value at a credit-crunch-defying half-a-billion dollars.

 

Secret theft of coins and artifacts

The problem is, of course, that you can’t just go around the world hauling up millions of dollars in lost treasure – even in international waters – without the occasional problem. And in Stemm’s case the ‘Black Swan’ treasure has mutated into an angry international dispute. Spain has accused Odyssey of secretly stripping a Spanish ship of coins and artifacts and trying to hide them by claiming it did not know the identity of the ship.

 

Spain’s government won the right to inspect the retrieved coins from the ‘Black Swan’ and concluded they had come from the wrecked Spanish warship Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes – a vessel that had been sunk by the British navy in 1804 with the loss of 250 lives. Warships are governed by sovereign immunity, Spain said, and that means the wreck and its cargo belongs to the Spanish.

 

Odyssey responded with a 1,000-page court report [last week nov 17] rebutting Spain’s claims. “Based on our research and evaluation, even if the site discovered is associated with the Mercedes – which is unclear from the evidence – the ship should not be accorded sovereign immunity, which would mean that we should get a substantial salvage award,” Stemm says. “At the present time, though, there is not enough evidence to determine whether the site is associated with the Mercedes.”

 

Exploration costs at least US$35,000 a day

At the time of going to press, the legal dispute was grinding its way through a Tampa court in America. Complicating the case further has been the issue of whether the court has jurisdiction over proceedings and the fact that Spanish descendants of coin-carrying merchants associated with the Mercedes as well as the Peruvian government have also come forward to claim property rights. “There has never been a case like this brought to the US Court and it could well set a precedent in shipwreck exploration,” says Stemm.

 

The exploration company CEO has come a long way since he worked for comedian Bob Hope as a public relations consultant. Today his boyhood dream of shipwreck exploration has become a very grown-up reality. Odyssey is a NASDAQ-listed company and has a staff of more than 150. Stemm has teams of researchers poring over ancient documents in libraries around the globe guiding the movements of underwater robots scouring the seabed. There are salvage vessels worth millions, crack squads of expert archaeologists, vastly experienced underwater technicians and, inevitably, some of the best legal minds in the world. Excluding the initial cost of all the technology, Stemm estimates that daily overhead costs during an exploration are at least US$35,000 a day. It took two months to recover the coins from the ‘Black Swan’ wreck.

 

Treasure hunting is a high-risk business. Finding wreck locations that will provide a return on investment is incredibly complicated. Deep-sea exploration logistics are time-consuming, expensive and frustrating and that’s before you’ve even raised a doubloon. Conservation problems are challenging and ownership issues a web of expensive legal difficulty that doesn’t always go in favour of the salver. In the recent example of an American company’s discovery of the Juno, a Spanish frigate wrecked off the coast of Virginia in 1802 allegedly laden with US$80 million worth of gold, a US court ruled the shipwreck was the property of Spain.

 

The silver bars were worth US$450 million

However, on rare occasions shipwreck exploration can pay off. Big time. After examining an estimated 50,000 pages of tattered documentation in Seville’s Maritime Museum archives, American wreck hunting enthusiast Mel Fisher identified an area where the Nuestra Senora de Atocha sank in a hurricane in Florida’s Key West in 1622. After 16 years of raking the depths of the ocean and muttering his famous motto, “Today’s the day”, Fisher finally discovered in 1985 what was described as the ‘bank of Spain’ – more than 40 tons of silver and gold including 100,000 Spanish coins, emeralds and silver bars worth a total of US$450 million.

 

Almost 20 years later in 2003, after 13 years of research and exploration, Odyssey discovered the wreck of the SS Republic, a Civil War era shipwreck that had sunk in a storm 100 miles from the Georgia coast carrying a fortune destined for New Orleans. More than 51,000 coins and 13,000 artefacts were recovered from the 1,700-feet-deep site. The haul was valued at US$75 million.

 

The sale of cargo from wrecks is clearly what keeps operations such as Odyssey afloat. In addition to share capital, the company generates income from the sale of a portion of the trade goods it has recovered. “We make a very careful distinction between culturally significant artefacts which are rare or one of a kind and trade goods which are duplicate items recovered in large quantities,” Stemm says.

 

The same rules on land should be applied in water

If you visit Odyssey’s website shop you can pick up coins ranging in price from a few dollars to ‘gift sets’ of US$4,500 or a SS Republic necklace for US$6,900 in addition to DVDs, Odyssey clothing, books and other merchandise. Got to the Mel Fisher website and you can pick up a gold bar from the Atocha for US$88,000 or a 1715 gold locket from a Spanish Plate Fleet shipwreck for US$400,00. Just click on ‘add to cart’. It’s certainly a more entertaining shopping website than Amazon.com.

 

And this is all very well and good, but many archaeological groups are outraged by this commercialisation. “The UNESCO 2001 Convention for Underwater Cultural Heritage condemns looting and treasure hunting as well as the intervention on submerged archaeological sites for commercial exploitation,” UNESCO’s Ulrike Koschtial tells Penthouse. “The same rules that are applied on land should be followed under water. It would be incomprehensible to have people visiting ancient sites on land, breaking into graves, historical buildings or sacred sites to plunder treasure and then sell stolen treasures on line.”

 

Koschtial says that the loss of underwater archaeological artefacts ranges from the casual theft from wrecks by weekend leisure divers to sophisticated, well-financed operations like Odyssey’s. UNESCO estimates that more than 160 large vessels have been commercially exploited during the past 30 years with up to 500,000 objects recovered and sold per wreck. “It is astonishing how such an Indiana Jones mentality has taken hold,” says Koschtial. “Just because these wrecks are under water people think they are freely available. It is tragic to see marine salvage enterprises hoovering up history and indiscriminately damaging historical sites.”

'In the next 50 years mankind will have mapped the entire ocean floor'

UNESCO believes that wreck sites reveal valuable historical insight and should, in principle, be made available to the public. “The Mary Rose wreck, for instance is a good example of sensitively displaying marine history to the UK public,” says Koschtial. “The British nation would have lost a great deal if this wreck had been dismantled by treasure hunters as occurred in the case of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.”

 

However, operations such as Odyssey insist that they are sensitive to modern archaeological protocols with experts constantly on hand to carefully document historical artefact retrieval, mapping and photographing sites comprehensively before items are removed.

 

The company distances itself from what Stemm describes as inexperienced treasure hunters “who are only after the riches and pay no regard to historical significance”. Odyssey has a touring interactive exhibit ‘Shipwreck! Pirates and Treasure’ that allows visitors to experience “the research, search, archaeological recovery and conservation” involved in the “quest for deep-sea knowledge and treasures”. And the company has also teamed up with a variety of documentary media from National Geographic to the Discovery Channel to chart their operations.

 

It’s controversial subject, but while the outcome of the Black Swan/Mercedes case remains unclear, one thing is certain; commercial shipwreck salvage operations show no sign of slowing down. UNESCO estimates that there are three million undiscovered shipwrecks beneath the world’s seas and as salvage technology improves these sites get tantalisingly closer. “We believe in the next 50 years, mankind will have mapped nearly the entire ocean bottom and discovered millions of shipwrecks,” Stemm says. “We have several that captivate us and are on our database as possible future recoveries, but you will probably not hear about them until we announce their discovery.”

 

The fairy-tale story of Mel Fisher and the US$450 million haul

AT 1.15pm on July 20, 1985, treasure hunter Mel Fisher heard from his son Kane that their for the treasure of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha was over. After scouring the oceans for a staggering 16 years, the Fisher team had located what was described as the ‘bank of Spain’. Valued at an estimated US$450 million, the haul included 100,000 coins, hundreds of rare artifacts and Columbian emeralds as well as 1,000 gold and silver bars. Speaking on behalf of the family-run company that continues, Mel Fisher’s Treasures, Sharon Wiley discusses the big day.

What was Mel’s reaction when he heard news of the find?

Mel was sitting in a bar. It took some time but family and staff finally located him to tell him the great news. He immediately went to the dive shop and bought new gear as he hadn’t been diving in a few years. He then went to the Greene Street headquarters and called Kane who responded by saying, “Put away the charts, we've found her.” He then headed out to the site. I imagine it did not sink in for some time as the flood of media attention sent Mel and his Golden Crew into a whirlwind

To what extent did the discovery change the Fishers’ lives?  

The 1985 discovery of the Motherlode of the Atocha completely changed their lives. They were hailed as the World’s Greatest Treasure Hunters, 16 years of hardship had finally paid off and the skeptics proved wrong.

What happened to the treasure?

Mel battled the State of Florida through 111 court cases all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. The ruling came down that, “The Fisher family owns the rights to the Atocha and Margarita ‘wherever they may lie’.” Once he gained physical custody of the treasure and artifacts he created the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society. It holds a vast representation of every kind of artifact recovered from the site donated by the Fisher family in addition to unique pieces such as the Poison Cup and Bishop’s Cross which will never be sold.

And Mel’s investors received their share?

Our investors did get a division of treasure including items such as silver coins, gold coins, silver bars and gold bars in addition to spikes and pieces of the ship. A portion of the Fisher family division has also been sold to help fund the continuation of the search for the Sterncastle section of the Atocha. It is important to note that very few unique artifacts are sold. The majority remains on display in one of our museums. Should a unique artifact leave our facility we first cast and mould a museum quality recreation of the piece.

To what extent are salvage operations ongoing at Mel Fisher’s Treasures today?

Today we still have an active salvage operation in progress searching for the Sterncastle of the Atocha as well as the remaining cargo of the Santa Margarita, the sister ship to the Atocha, which went down in the same hurricane. We also continue to search for and salvage the 1715 Plate Fleet on the Treasure Coast of Florida near Vero Beach. Lastly, we have begun work on some exciting new shipwrecks which are as yet undisclosed. 

What do you think Mel’s legacy has been?

Mel's legacy lives on in his family, the devoted crews and staff, and in the thousands of fellow treasure hunters and dreamers across the world. The family has become a role model proving that with persistence, hard work and belief anything can be accomplished. As Mel did, his family begins each day with the motto ‘Today's the Day’. Through bankruptcies, setbacks, lawsuits and months and years of not finding anything and despite all the nay-sayers he was able to realise his dream and uncover the most valuable shipwreck in history.

How would you respond to criticism that salvage operations such as Mel’s are simply “Indiana Jones treasure hunts for commercial gain”?

Our salvage operation at Mel Fisher's is on par if not above any of the government funded expeditions of Ivory Tower academics. We meticulously chart each and every excavated area tagging, numbering, weighing, photographing and conserving each artifact that is found – valuable or not. Many people have the misconception that we cherry pick all of the gold and silver artifacts when in fact we bring up everything. This includes hammers, axes, musket balls pottery shards and any other artifact we come across.

To what extent is conservation important to your company?

Every recovered item is taken to a world-class laboratory by trained professionals who follow conservation guidelines under the Texas A&M University’s Nautical Archaeology Program, considered to be one of the foremost authorities in submerged cultural resource conservation. All artifacts recovered can be found in our publicly displayed database, which is the largest Marine Archaeological Database in the world. Here you will find pre and post- conservation photographs, weights and measurements along with details on when an item was found, the type of artifact and all known details. The detail and accuracy that we are able to provide using private funding is simply not feasible by other means.

So private companies have better shipwreck resources than government organisations?

Private funding affords us the time, equipment, personnel and experience that government-funded operations are incapable of achieving. If not for private sector salvage the majority of historic shipwrecks would remain untouched. We would lose the very thing they are attempting to preserve through further years of deterioration. Much of the history and the story of the shipwrecks are lost as time passes and eventually there will be nothing left for us to be able to piece together the ways in which people lived, travelled, survived and died back in those times.

What do you think the future holds for salvage operations such as Mel Fisher Treasures?

The future of treasure hunting lies in deeper waters. As new wrecks are uncovered we will rely more on Remotely Operated Vehicles and computer programs and less on divers searching the sites by hand and eye with metal detectors. Many of the wrecks in shallow water have been discovered which leaves those in deep water yet to be found with technology that did not exist even 10 years ago. As the expeditions move into deeper water they become more costly to pursue. We believe the private sector will play a pivotal role in the world’s ability to uncover these sunken vessels and bring to light all of the history that they encompass. There is still billions of dollars worth of treasure on ocean floors across the world waiting to be discovered.