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The Last Loot

Eric Alan Barton

Storm clouds have begun collecting over the beach as John Brandon 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.

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.


Everyone onboard the Spanish armada that sailed past Florida on July 29, 1715, must have known their doomed fate. The birds that normally circled above sailing ships were gone, and the low pressure in the air was a sure indication of the storm heading their way. By nightfall, winds topped 100 mph and 30-foot waves battered the dozen ships. The hurricane sent the fleet barreling toward the deadly reef not far off Florida's coast.

On the armada's supply ship, the Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, the crew and passengers spilled onto the top deck to avoid being caught below when the ship went down. When the Nieves finally struck the reef, something miraculous happened. Instead of splitting like a watermelon -- the fate of ten other ships that night -- the top deck of the Nieves separated like the top of a soup can from the rest of the hull. Waves then carried the deck safely to shore, says Ernie Richards, a Lake Worth historian who's co-authored two books on the 1715 fleet. "When it surfed in," Richards said recently, "there were 105 people with their nails dug into the deck to hold on." The luck of the Nieves wasn't repeated among the other ships, which lost 700 crewmen and passengers and spilled millions of pesos in treasure onto the reef.

A month later, pirates and English ships were already heading to the wrecks when Spain dispatched its police chief from Havana to oversee the salvaging effort. Sergeant-Major Juan del Hoyo Solorzano undertook the job with all the brutal ferocity of colonial Spain. The ships were laden with food for the Atlantic journey, and sharks and barracudas swarmed among the treasure. Using upturned wine casks to breathe, Spanish divers who braved the feeding frenzy quickly became part of it. Soon, the Spaniards refused to dive, so Solorzano rounded up a village-sized party of natives. He gave them a reprehensible deal: If they could fill a basket full of treasure, Solorzano agreed to pull them back up. If they failed, he left them for the sharks. The arrangement wiped out every one of the native divers.

Pirates and marauding English ships plagued the salvage effort, often stealing the gold after divers risked their lives to recover it. By 1719, four years after the storm, Spain had recovered less than a third of the treasure. Spain called off its salvage crews, and a new feeding frenzy began. English, French, and pirate ships descended on the wrecks. Just how much the buccaneers got was never documented, but without the equipment of modern-day treasure hunters, the early divers, who quit a decade or so later, likely left behind a majority of the loot.

Those early divers mostly ignored the wreck of the Nieves. It was a supply ship, after all, and if it had treasure onboard, it wasn't listed on the ship's registry, perhaps smuggled by colonists trying to avoid paying taxes on their loot. So for nearly three centuries, the smuggled riches of the Nieves sat on the bottom of the ocean floor, just waiting to make someone rich.

In the 1950s, metal detectors and new diving equipment made it possible to relocate the wrecks. The early divers found cannon, scattered coins, and even fragments of the ships themselves. Then, in May 1964, the treasure hunting industry was officially relaunched by a former chicken farmer named Mel Fisher. The stretch of coast that made him an instant celebrity is now called Douglas Beach, but back then, it was "Colored Beach," and just offshore, Fisher found 3,500 gold coins beneath the sandy bottom. It didn't take long for Fisher and other early divers to discover that his newfound riches came from the wreck of the Nieves. The state gave Fisher exclusive rights to the Nieves wreck, and ever since, the company he founded has been sending divers like Brandon to it in hopes of duplicating his early luck.


After Brandon found the gold coin in June, thundershowers chased him away from the Nieves wreck. The next day, he set off again to thoroughly search the spot where he found the coin. It could be part of a treasure chest that broke apart or perhaps one of a pocketful of coins from a drowned colonist. But as his ship, the Endeavor, reached the wreck, one of the engines quit, forcing him to turn back. The weather went bad the next day, and Brandon sat at the dock nearly two weeks waiting to see if that gold coin would point the way to riches.

 

Finally, on June 22, with the sun rising, Brandon heads back to the Nieves wreck. He's a crewman short, with one man attending a funeral, and his wounded engine still coughs out odd noises as he churns into the ocean. The Endeavor's age seems to be getting to it. Built as a commercial dive boat 31 years ago, the ship once ferried Cuban refugees to Florida during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, before Brandon turned it into a treasure hunting machine. The railings may be loose and the plywood covering the engine compartment soft and rotting, but when it's up and running, the Endeavor heads out almost every day. "That's the kind of luck we've had all season," Brandon says from the captain's chair of the 40-foot ship. "We find a gold coin, things are looking up, and then all this stuff just hobbles us."

Brandon's also working with a new crew this year, something that makes his job even more difficult. This winter, during the offseason, Brandon put an ad in the paper searching for experienced divers. As he does every year, Brandon told prospective mates that he doesn't want family men, no one who's trying to put food on the table or pay a mortgage. Sure, there's a chance a crewman could get rich, but most likely he'll work for less than minimum wage all summer. Ryan Iacona, a gangly 19-year-old, answered the ad. He'd been trying to get on a dive boat since quitting high school. "I just kept going up to dive boats and saying, 'Hey, can I work? No? How about I wash the boat? How about I work for tips?' But I couldn't get on." Brandon pays him $325 a week plus one half of 1 percent of any treasure they find. In good weather, when they go out every day of the week, it's a paltry sum. But Brandon also pays his crew when engine troubles or the weather keeps them at shore. With a buzz cut, a piercing in his right eyebrow, and a pointy goatee at the bottom of his slender face, Iacona looks similar to the idyllic image of a buccaneer's first mate.

Iacona hangs on to a railing in the wheelhouse as the boat hits the ocean waves from the Fort Pierce inlet, and Brandon begins his daylong talk of treasure.

"I've been in on so many big finds, it's unbelievable," Brandon says. "Rubies, gold coins, amethysts, loads and loads of treasure. I couldn't even begin to count." He talks of gold adoringly. "Gold has been prized since the beginning of man. The Incas, they thought it was tears from the gods."

Brandon began treasure hunting at 10 years old, when he bought a metal detector to comb the beaches here in his hometown of Fort Pierce, a sleepy seaside city an hour's drive north of West Palm Beach on what's aptly named the Treasure Coast. Three years later, Brandon found his first gold coin on the beach. He made a ring out of it that he still wears, the band now stuck on his sausage-sized fingers. At 16, Brandon quit school and joined the diving outfit founded by Mel Fisher, the man who first stumbled on the remains of the Nieves wreck. At first, Brandon made $50 a week with no share of the treasure. But with successes, he worked up to his current arrangement, a steady paycheck from the company the late Fisher founded, plus a cut of any loot he finds. It's a better deal than most treasure hunters operate under, living on only a fraction of what they find after paying expenses. "You can make a living at it, for sure," Brandon says. "There has been months that the Fishers tell their crews not to go out because they don't have any money, but I keep running, and they pay me back when they can."

At the dive site, they anchor the boat over the spot where Brandon found the gold coin. They lower two metal cylinders the shape of elbow macaroni off the back of the boat, positioning them directly over the two engine props. Brandon suits up in his dive gear, and Iacona revs the engine. The boat shakes, feeling like a race car spinning its tires. The entire force of the twin diesel engines shoots down at the ocean floor, removing a three-foot layer of sand from the coquina rock below. Brandon watches the sand drift on the waves toward the beach.

 

"All right, ease it back," Brandon tells Iacona before descending the dive ladder. Iacona drops the engine to an idle speed, keeping the sand from returning to the hole dug by the boat. Brandon dives face first into the churning water and heads to the crack where he found the coin. At the bottom, with the silt and sand and even a school of fish swirling around him, Brandon runs the metal detector across the bottom. He overturns old oyster shells, bits of coral, but there's nothing. No sign of gold.

Still, Brandon knows that when the 1715 fleet sank, the hurricane spread its loot over a 30-mile stretch, so the gold coin found in June might be an indication of gold nearby. He dives to the surface and yells to his mate. "Let's move." Iacona adjusts the anchors to shift the ship to port, where they use the boat props to dig a second hole. "We're going to take baby steps today," Brandon explains, "until we find that gold."

By noon, they've dug 15 holes, and Brandon tells Iacona to get lunch ready. The young crewman sets up two overturned buckets next to the dive ladder. He places a paper plate with a store-bought Cuban sandwich surrounded by potato chips on one bucket, and on the other, he adds a can of root beer. Always with efficiency in mind, Brandon gulps down lunch in between dives. "Sometimes he'll dive four times just during lunch," Iacona explains.

By 2 p.m., they're on their 20th hole dug into the ocean floor. With Brandon below, Iacona talks about what he'd do if they hit it big. "I'd put it in the bank," he says. A minute later, he reconsiders his conservative plans. "But I probably would go out and buy a new bike. A Kawasaki. They make the fastest bike that's street legal. Besides that, maybe I'd open a dive shop. A dive shop on the second floor with a store on the first floor. I want that when I retire."

Finally, Iacona notices Brandon has been down for a while. His normal dives last maybe five minutes, but Brandon has been down for ten or more. Iacona peers over the stern to see if he can see the captain, but the churning sand clouds the view. "If he's down there this long, that means he's chipping away at something," Iacona explains with excitement. "He might come up with a beer can, but it might mean he's coming up with gold."

Finally, after nearly 15 minutes, Brandon surfaces, carefully holding something in his right hand. Iacona peers over the side, hoping the captain will start shouting of gold.


John Brandon has made two dives that will always haunt him. One was a nightmare. The other was a legendary find of treasure, and the memory of it pushes him every day in a monomaniacal way akin to Captain Ahab.

The nightmare happened back on July 20, 1975, when Brandon went into the sea to recover the dead. He was in the Keys working as a mate when one of Fisher's ships sank nearby. It was a freak accident. The boat capsized mysteriously in the middle of the night during calm seas, drowning three crewmen. Fisher's oldest son, 20-year-old Dirk Fisher, and Dirk's new bride drowned in the wheelhouse. Brandon's job was to recover the bodies. "That was the worst dive I've had to make out of a lot of dives I've made out here."

The next one was in 1982, and while it's a better memory, it's also a memory that will never fade. Diving for Fisher on a wreck near the Marquesas Keys, Brandon discovered a pile of nearly 100 silver coins. It's not a bad discovery, with each coin worth about $3,000. But then later that same day, in 40 feet of water, Brandon uncovered the most valuable single item ever found in Florida waters. Lying there on the rock was a belt of pure gold more than two feet long. It had 23 links, each one adorned with a precious gem. He can still see it resting there on the bottom, waiting centuries for him to find it. "That will be crystal clear in my mind until I'm old and gray and dead."

That treasure will always impel Brandon to go out every day when the weather's good, just like the hope of a big find pushes the other two dozen or so treasure hunters still working in Florida waters. They go on despite the diminishing treasure and the fact that their expenses often outpace the value of what they find.

 

Most of the treasure hunters plying the Treasure Coast this summer are, like Brandon, working for the company Mel Fisher set up, which is now run by his children. Brandon and his rivals are independent contractors who agree to give half of any loot they find to the Fishers. The boat captains then often seek out investors to help cover expenses, but when they find treasure, much of the proceeds go to the investors to make up for years in which they found nothing. The captains then must pay their own expenses from their cut, meaning every captain must find tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in treasure each year just to break even and more if they hope to some day make a profit. The last big find by a Fisher employee came in 2001, when a boat captain uncovered $60,000 in gold coins off Vero Beach. The find was more than all the treasure collected in the entire previous year.

While no one keeps track of the total treasure collected in Florida, James Levy, the state's curator, says it's at a 40-year low. Levy makes a survey every year of the treasure collected and then can claim one-fifth of it as the state's keep. He looks for rare items and dated coins not already in the state's collection, held in a Tallahassee vault. While the Florida collection includes 1,760 gold coins and about 22,000 silver coins, most of that came up in the 1960s, and little since. Last year, for instance, divers working for the Fisher family pulled up just 58 gold and silver coins from the Nieves wreck, according to documents provided to Levy by the treasure hunters. Twenty years ago, the Fishers regularly pulled up hundreds of coins every year, according to the documents. In the mid-1980s, divers found pottery, bone fragments, gun handles, and piles of coins on the Nieves wreck. Now, divers find few artifacts and only scattered coins hidden in crevices in the ocean floor. Levy figures many of the treasure hunters currently working will probably be out of work in the next two or three years, leaving only the most successful, or the luckiest, still searching for lost loot.

Salvage operations on the 1715 fleet are overseen by Fisher's daughter, Taffi Fisher-Abt, from an office and treasure museum in Sebastian. Like Brandon, she believes strongly that there's more to be found. "I think there are a couple of big bonanzas still out there, and it's going to take someone with a lot of patience to find them," Fisher-Abt says. "People like John Brandon and a few others... they'll always be out there finding stuff." She uses the example of boat captain Kim Glaner, who pulled up a bounty of silver items on June 22. Working a wreck south of the Sebastian inlet, Glaner found a five-inch-long cross, four forks with carvings of dancing ladies on top, a large platter with an ornate, flowery design, and a small silver box, disappointingly filled only with sand.

While it was a big find, likely worth tens of thousands of dollars, it was the first time Glaner found treasure after a decade working wrecks. Glaner is a weekend treasure hunter who spends his days as a project manager for Motorola in Orlando. He made the big discovery of silver items while on a week's vacation. Unlike many treasure hunters, Glaner doesn't rely on it to pay the bills, but he does have investors to pay back for ten years of support. After taking on treasure hunting as a hobby, Glaner took on partners: his brother-in-law, sister, dad, and a cousin. They send him checks every month in hopes of a big payout someday. "Hopefully, this find at least covers my expenses, if not more," Glaner says. "This was a great find, but at this point, I would still have to find a lot more to ever take this on full time."

For most in the business nowadays, they're holding on to memories of past finds, says Richards, the historian and a recreational treasure hunter. "Nobody's making it rich," he says. "A couple of people have become famous, but nobody's doing anything more than paying the bills. But, you know, people that do this are going to turn every stone, every grain of sand, until they find something else or they go broke."

Based on historical records, every ship that went down off Florida's coast carrying anything of value has been found, says Bob "Frogfoot" Weller, a historian and retired treasure hunter. Modern salvage crews have located the remains of six ships from the 1715 fleet, but the others, Weller says, carried no gold or loot worthy of salvaging operations. "You're talking about ships carrying tobacco and citrus. There's nothing there to pull up by now." Still, every treasure hunter working today spends a portion of his time scanning the open water for new wrecks. Brandon does it about once a week, heading away from the known wrecks to use sonar equipment in the hopes of locating something new. It's an expensive gamble, because short of finding a new shipwreck, the days scanning open water yield no new treasure.

 

Before retiring last year, the 79-year-old Weller was one of the most renowned salvagers in the treasure hunting fleet. He's most famous for finding a cache of jewelry in 1993 that he believes is the infamous "Queen's Jewels." While others dispute that claim, the Fishers have put a price tag on the find of $1.3 million. But Weller acknowledges that nobody gets rich from hunting treasure. "By the time you pay the state, your investors, pay your expenses and your crew, you can barely scratch out a living, if that," he says. "What did I make off the Queen's Jewels? I paid my expenses that year and not much more." Most treasure hunters have day jobs or find winter work to pay the bills. The few full-timers, like Brandon, live conservatively, Weller says. "John doesn't have a whole lot," Weller says. "John has a collection of treasure that he's kept. It's a pretty good collection. And he sells one every once in a while to pay the bills. That collection is also his retirement."

Still, Weller says, it's a life few can quit. He retired only after doctors removed his spleen last year. Sitting in the office of his Lake Worth home, with each wall covered in pictures of the loot he's found, Weller tries to explain the allure of treasure hunting. The way he speaks of it, dripping with melodrama, is common among treasure hunters. He squints and holds out a clenched fist to emphasize his point: "Close your eyes and squeeze one of those gold coins and all your dreams will come true."


After spending a quarter of an hour on the bottom, Brandon surfaces with something hidden in his fist. Iacona watches with anticipation as Brandon grabs the dive ladder, hoping he'll be hollering about gold when he spits out his dive gear. Instead, Brandon bellows out his standard command. "Let's move."

Brandon hands over his find, an iron musket ball the size of a small marble. Hidden as it was in a crevice, the ball has survived three centuries with no corrosion and just a bit of coral. It's likely destined for the Mel Fisher museum in Key West, where tourists pay $30 for authentic shipwrecked musket balls.

Iacona lets out slack on one of the three anchors holding the ship solidly in place. He attaches the line from a second anchor to a winch, pulling the boat ten feet starboard where they can search a new spot. By Brandon's shouted commands, they make a checkerboard pattern of holes near where he found the gold coin. At just shy of 3 p.m., when Brandon surfaces from his 27th dive, a trio of pelicans skims across the water northward. Brandon's eyes follow backward over their path to a squall heading his way. "We're going to go ahead and pack it up," he shouts to Iacona.

The pair pulls up the three anchors and sets sail to the inlet minutes before the rain comes. With the storm battering the wheelhouse, Brandon talks of the next generation. "I've got twins, a boy and a girl," he says. His wife, Debbie, has even helped him pull up treasure. "The twins, they're 7, so maybe next year, they'll come out. I haven't taken them yet because this is a workboat, not a pleasure boat. But when they're old enough, they'll go down with me."

Thunder rolls to the south as Brandon eyes the musket ball displayed on a velvet cloth he uses to photograph treasure. "Well, we paid for lunch at least." His expenses for an average day at around $150, Brandon counts this day as a loss.

At the steering wheel, Brandon boasts that the Endeavor likely has another half-century in it, and so does he. "I've already designed a contraption so I can dive when I'm in a wheelchair. It'll shoot me off the back. Then they'll pick me up with a crane. I'll be beating on the crew with a cane shouting, 'Faster, faster. '"

Waves kicked up from the squall pound the boat. "It got nasty quick," Iacona says.

"Oh, hell," Brandon barks. "This ain't shit. You wouldn't believe the storms I've had to ride out." As the ship turns into the inlet, Brandon yells his story over the pelting rain that chased him from his treasure. He doesn't always find treasure on these trips, but he always has stories of gold and jewels, stories that gleam with the undying promise of finding more tomorrow.


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