The Last Loot

Modern-day buccaneers pluck the last nuggets of Spanish gold from the South Florida deep

Storm clouds have begun collecting over the beach as JohnBrandon dives into an underwater whirlwind. A quarter-mile from the shore off Fort Pierce, sand, rocks, and air bubbles swirl so wildly around Brandon that the sun nearly disappears. Above him, the blunt force of his ship's engines aims down at the ocean floor to sweep away the sand, sending everything in churning currents. When he reaches the bottom, just 15 feet below, only the outcropping of jagged coquina rock he holds onto gives an indication of which way is up. He swipes a metal detector across the rock, and the device's headphones squeal in his ears. It's a beautiful sound. The piercing shriek can mean gold and riches, pointing the way to treasure hidden for three centuries -- until Brandon brings it up this Saturday afternoon in June.

Brandon stuffs the metal detector into his belt and eyes a jagged slit running across the rock. His fingers too plump for the narrow opening, Brandon pulls a hammer from his belt and begins pounding. The Spanish once mined this coral rock for military forts that repelled cannon balls, and it takes Brandon several swings with the hammer to make a dent. At 50 years old, Brandon finds the work harder than it used to be. The exertion, coupled with the adrenalin of anticipation, forces him to take deeper breaths from his precious air tank.

Finally, Brandon works his fingers inside the crevice. He can feel the shape of his objective before pulling it out. It's round and flat, and when he drops it into his palm, he can make out details forged centuries ago: a cross in the center of an ornate border. It's pure gold, and even after three centuries underwater, it's as shiny as a wedding ring tucked into a best man's pocket.

Eric Alan Barton
Brandon comes up from below, where he found a $15,000 gold coin he wears as a necklace (center).  Bottom: Brandon and crewman Ryan Iacona  head to the wreck site.
Eric Alan Barton
Brandon comes up from below, where he found a $15,000 gold coin he wears as a necklace (center). Bottom: Brandon and crewman Ryan Iacona head to the wreck site.

Swimming to the surface with the treasure in hand is an old habit for Brandon, who has spent three decades as a full-time treasure hunter. After living like a pirate, Brandon even looks the part. His hair, nearly the color of that gold coin, with streaks of silver and red, hangs behind him in a squat ponytail. It matches a beard and bushy eyebrows made stiff from years in saltwater. The sun has given his cheeks a constant rosy hue, and in the sun, he often gives a one-eyed pirate squint that seems almost too much. Over the years, Brandon has recovered a pile of loot, including one of the richest items ever, a $1.2 million belt of gold encrusted with precious gems.

Despite today's modest find, compared to the king's ransom that he's collected over the years, when Brandon hits the surface, he bellows like it's his first. "Gold! Gold! I got gold!" he yells to his two-man crew. He hasn't even spit out his scuba gear yet, and the words come out in muffled roars. When he climbs the ladder on the port side, his crew, both new this year to treasure hunting, rush to see the riches. He proudly stretches out his palm to reveal the loot.

In his hand sits a gold Spanish coin. The last person to hold it was likely a doomed passenger on the Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, a Spanish ship that sank in this spot nearly three centuries ago. The coin is no bigger than a quarter and as thin as a dime, and it's worth maybe $5,000 to collectors.

For all his excitement, for all the thrill of finding treasure, Brandon knows that, unless he finds a bunch more this summer, the coin won't even pay for his expenses. But finding anything valuable in Florida's shipwrecks is becoming increasingly rare these days. Centuries of salvaging the wrecks may finally be exhausting Florida's undersea riches, endangering the romantic life of treasure hunting.

Many of the captains and crew on the two dozen ships in the treasure hunting fleet know that their way of life is threatened. Their only salvation is locating a new wreck. To be worthwhile, it would have to be a ship laden with treasure that somehow escaped pirates and salvagers. The treasure hunters spend every day scanning the expansive ocean floor for the chance discovery of a new shipwreck, knowing it's tantamount to locating a bit of scattered loot in the vastness of the wide-open sea.

Not long ago, the industry rarely went a year without a new discovery of hundreds of gold coins or rare jewelry. But many veterans of the trade and historians believe that virtually everything of value has been found. James Levy, a conservator with the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research, has spent three decades compiling lists of all the treasure found each year in state waters. He has watched the finds slowly diminish. "It's getting pretty critical," Levy says. "They're going to have to find new wrecks pretty quick or there won't be many people left in this business."

Meanwhile, the few sailors who still scratch out a living off lost treasure -- a diminishing group of tattered optimists -- hold desperately onto the dream of finding riches. Brandon and his colleagues spend every day of good weather each summer searching for gold. After his discovery of a gold coin in June, Brandon embarked on a quest to see if it marked the site of a new cache of riches and the hope of saving a vanishing way of life.

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