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The Last Loot

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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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton

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