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The Last Loot

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Before retiring last year, the 79-year-old Weller was one of the most renowned salvagers in the treasure hunting fleet. He's most famous for finding a cache of jewelry in 1993 that he believes is the infamous "Queen's Jewels." While others dispute that claim, the Fishers have put a price tag on the find of $1.3 million. But Weller acknowledges that nobody gets rich from hunting treasure. "By the time you pay the state, your investors, pay your expenses and your crew, you can barely scratch out a living, if that," he says. "What did I make off the Queen's Jewels? I paid my expenses that year and not much more." Most treasure hunters have day jobs or find winter work to pay the bills. The few full-timers, like Brandon, live conservatively, Weller says. "John doesn't have a whole lot," Weller says. "John has a collection of treasure that he's kept. It's a pretty good collection. And he sells one every once in a while to pay the bills. That collection is also his retirement."

Still, Weller says, it's a life few can quit. He retired only after doctors removed his spleen last year. Sitting in the office of his Lake Worth home, with each wall covered in pictures of the loot he's found, Weller tries to explain the allure of treasure hunting. The way he speaks of it, dripping with melodrama, is common among treasure hunters. He squints and holds out a clenched fist to emphasize his point: "Close your eyes and squeeze one of those gold coins and all your dreams will come true."

After spending a quarter of an hour on the bottom, Brandon surfaces with something hidden in his fist. Iacona watches with anticipation as Brandon grabs the dive ladder, hoping he'll be hollering about gold when he spits out his dive gear. Instead, Brandon bellows out his standard command. "Let's move."

Brandon hands over his find, an iron musket ball the size of a small marble. Hidden as it was in a crevice, the ball has survived three centuries with no corrosion and just a bit of coral. It's likely destined for the Mel Fisher museum in Key West, where tourists pay $30 for authentic shipwrecked musket balls.

Iacona lets out slack on one of the three anchors holding the ship solidly in place. He attaches the line from a second anchor to a winch, pulling the boat ten feet starboard where they can search a new spot. By Brandon's shouted commands, they make a checkerboard pattern of holes near where he found the gold coin. At just shy of 3 p.m., when Brandon surfaces from his 27th dive, a trio of pelicans skims across the water northward. Brandon's eyes follow backward over their path to a squall heading his way. "We're going to go ahead and pack it up," he shouts to Iacona.

The pair pulls up the three anchors and sets sail to the inlet minutes before the rain comes. With the storm battering the wheelhouse, Brandon talks of the next generation. "I've got twins, a boy and a girl," he says. His wife, Debbie, has even helped him pull up treasure. "The twins, they're 7, so maybe next year, they'll come out. I haven't taken them yet because this is a workboat, not a pleasure boat. But when they're old enough, they'll go down with me."

Thunder rolls to the south as Brandon eyes the musket ball displayed on a velvet cloth he uses to photograph treasure. "Well, we paid for lunch at least." His expenses for an average day at around $150, Brandon counts this day as a loss.

At the steering wheel, Brandon boasts that the Endeavor likely has another half-century in it, and so does he. "I've already designed a contraption so I can dive when I'm in a wheelchair. It'll shoot me off the back. Then they'll pick me up with a crane. I'll be beating on the crew with a cane shouting, 'Faster, faster. '"

Waves kicked up from the squall pound the boat. "It got nasty quick," Iacona says.

"Oh, hell," Brandon barks. "This ain't shit. You wouldn't believe the storms I've had to ride out." As the ship turns into the inlet, Brandon yells his story over the pelting rain that chased him from his treasure. He doesn't always find treasure on these trips, but he always has stories of gold and jewels, stories that gleam with the undying promise of finding more tomorrow.

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Eric Alan Barton
Contact: Eric Alan Barton

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