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The Last Loot

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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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton

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