Broward News

Score a Half-Billion-Dollar Win for Spain, but Treasure Hunters Vow to Keep Digging

Sean Fisher lives the exciting yet often uncertain life of a treasure hunter. As vice president of Mel Fisher's Treasures, Fisher knows that his career choice is not always easy. Treasure hunters spend years scavenging the salty seas in hopes of finding hidden gems that could win them a fortune -- and most of the time, they're very hard to come by.

That's why when a group of Tampa's treasure hunters found 594,000 silver and gold coins worth $500 million in a two-century-old shipwreck, it was more than a big deal. And when they didn't get to keep it, it was an even bigger deal -- for Fisher, his family, his friends in Tampa, and treasure hunters alike.

Fisher, whose family-owned company in Key West is named after his dive-pioneer grandfather, called the situation a "travesty, unjust, and wrong at so many levels."

In May 2007, treasure hunters from Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa set out

for European waters hoping to find buried riches. They discovered a piece of history that traced back to 19th-century war tensions between the Spanish and British empires: a shipwreck believed to be Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes off Portugal's Atlantic Coast near the Strait of Gibraltar. In an 1804 naval battle with the British, the Mercedes exploded and sank with what Spanish officials say were 200 passengers aboard. Despite laws that prohibit treasure hunters from excavating foreign military vessels, these treasure hunters took a chance and hauled their big win -- a treasure-trove that weighed 17 tons -- back to the United States.

Spain filed suit in U.S. federal court, arguing that it was not only the country's property but a vital piece of Spanish history. A federal district court judge ruled in 2009 that U.S. courts didn't have jurisdiction and ordered the gold returned to Spain. On Friday, after a five-year battle, the loot made its way back to Spain on a cargo jet.

Now, treasure hunters have no choice but to face their defeat, but not without a sense of outrage at the injustice they feel. Fisher believes sovereign immunity laws should not apply to a shipwreck that Spain abandoned and forgot about centuries ago.

"If Spain was out there looking for vessels and doing their best to do what we do, then that would be one thing, but they're not doing that," he said. "If it wasn't for companies like [Odyssey] and us, this history, this wealth of knowledge, would sit at the bottom of the ocean and deteriorate."

The federal laws and regulations that treasure hunters have to follow allow them only to explore and excavate merchant ships, not foreign, historical ones like the Mercedes. But as Fisher explained, it's "how these laws are interpreted" that determines what they get away with. When Mel Fisher discovered the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and her sister ship, the Santa Margarita, Spanish ships lost at the bottom of the ocean since they sank in 1622, Spain didn't have a problem with it.

"It's obviously about the dollars and about the money, regardless of what Spain might want you to think in their arguments," Fisher said.

On Friday, an entourage of Spanish officials relentlessly guarded the two massive cargo planes -- Spanish military C-130s -- that stood atop the tarmac at MacDill Air Force Base waiting for takeoff. The planes carried hundreds of plastic, white, treasure-filled buckets, the same ones in which they arrived. And just after noon, the 17 tons of precious cargo soared into the air and back to their native country.

Spain's ambassador to the United States, Jorge Dezcallar de Mazarredo, described the moment to the Associated Press as "emotional and moving" for him and his colleagues and justified the decision by saying, "This is not money. This is historical heritage."

Still, the debate and tension in the struggle between hunter and state lives on, even now that the final decision has been made and the treasure is gone. At the final U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday, Spain's education, culture, and sports minister, Jose Ignacio Wert, said that "the legacy of the Mercedes belongs to Spain."

As far as the impact it could have on treasure hunters everywhere, Fisher said the Odyssey case is terrible for the future of historic shipwreck recovery because it means stricter enforcement of rules and regulations. In other words, they actually have to stick to exploring merchant ships that once held merchant cargo.

"There are so many ships that don't fit that criteria and will just sit at the bottom of the ocean," Fisher said. "If people like us don't go out there and spend our money, blood, sweat, and tears, this history will be lost forever."

For the most part, it's a hard-knock life for a treasure hunter. With diving skills comparable to a fish and skin well on its way to being permanently salty, these individuals try to make their living off any buried treasure that could possibly be sitting at sandy bottom of the vast ocean. Equipped with trusty oxygen tanks, high-end metal detectors, and a sharp pair of eyes, these hopefuls fearlessly venture the waters knowing that they may not be successful.

Yet for centuries, something has kept them coming back for more. And this particular case, Fisher says, is not going to stop them from doing what they love, because this is what they live and breathe for -- even if they're breathing out of oxygen tanks.

"It's my livelihood and that of my children," Fisher said. "And beyond that, it's history -- history that must be seen by the world."

The treasure hunter does it for the thrill, the rush, the adrenaline that comes from that first moment when a shiny piece of metal is sitting in the palm of his hand. Why? Because there's a slight chance that there's more where that came from, that he could potentially leave his mark on history, or better yet, that his little discovery could be worth $500 million.

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Carolina Fernandez