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The Last Loot

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"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.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton

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