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.