Somewhere in the waters off the Florida coast, an estimated $250 million in silver bars and coins is waiting for Kim Fisher and his treasure hunting family to come and get it. And Fisher, who lives by his father’s “today’s-the-day” motto, thinks he’s close to one of the biggest hauls of his career.
That would close a chapter on a decades long hunt that brought in $450 million of gold and silver coins and precious jewels in the summer of 1985, when the family found part of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha. That find, off Florida’s southern shoreline, made Kim Fisher’s father Mel wealthy — and an industry legend. Now the family is looking for the rest of the boat.
Offshore treasure hunting conjures up glamour, excitement and riches ripe for the discovery. The reality, however, is often different: The small industry of real-life hunters live a dream that comes with its own share of heartache and disappointment.
Mel Fisher spent 17 years dragging the ocean floor for the Atocha. He lost a son and daughter-in-law when a ship sank, and his family sometimes had to choose between food and gas for the boat, which meant fishing for dinner when the choice was fuel. For those who choose to invest in these outfits, treasure hunting can mean a thrilling find or a total washout.
“Some years are practically a complete loss,” said Kim Fisher, who has been president and chief executive officer of Mel Fisher’s Treasuries since 1998, about a year before his father died.
Sometimes the stars align, as they did for Brent Brisben and his father, real estate mogul William O. Brisben, who bought the Fishers’ rights to a shipwreck site known as the 1715 Fleet in 2010 and this summer found gold coins worth $4.5 million in just a few feet of water.
“It’s magical, surreal, a confluence of events, finding all these amazing artifacts,” said Brent Brisben. “Many times since that day I keep wondering if I’m dead and I’m dreaming all this.”
Unesco estimates that there are over 3 million shipwrecks on ocean floors world-wide. It’s difficult to know what they might all be worth given the range of available historical information, differing opinions of items’ historical and financial value, and the likelihood that many are unsalvageable or largely unentertaining. A 2012 Popular Mechanics article published a range of theoretical values — from “unknowable” on one end to perhaps $60 billion on the other.
Still, the Caribbean and U.S. coasts are hot spots for treasure seekers, largely because their popularity with the Spanish fleets of several hundred years ago: Spain was among the few global powers hundreds of years able to ship silver and gold back from the New World.
“There was a tremendous flow of wealth,” said Kim Fisher in an interview. “A lot of those ships sank — around 700 Spanish galleons sank in 300 years. A handful were salvaged.”
When a shipwreck is located in U.S. waters, the finder needs to file an admiralty claim and secure rights to search the area. The U.S. Abandoned Shipwrecks Act was passed in 1987 to protect wrecks from treasure hunters and salvagers by transferring titles to state waters.
Globally, “governments are becoming more aggressive about going after their share of the booty,” said Ted Shinkle, who specializes in maritime law at GrayRobinson, in Melbourne, Fla. “That, in turn, has caused salvage companies to target wrecks beyond jurisdictional waters. They have a lot better chance of claiming on the high seas.”
Even in international waters, found treasure must be reported and there is always a chance that the country of origin will stake a claim. Some $500 million in gold and silver coins found off the coast of Portugal in the wreck of Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes by American salvage company Odyssey Marine Exploration in 2012 was returned to Spain after years of litigation.
Mel Fisher’s Treasuries has stuck closer to U.S. shores. It’s one of a few salvage companies in Florida that is allowed to stake claims to a wreck, acquiring the right to search the area.
Shinkle said the state is more willing to make agreements with reputable salvage companies that won’t destroy shipwrecks while trying to get treasure. “It’s more, in most of the cases, of a concern about marine archaeology, and wanting to preserve those wrecks,” he said. “It’s like the pyramids and the pyramid thieves. This is just the same, except it’s underwater.”
Running a treasure-seeking operation can cost millions of dollars. Fisher puts his at about $3 million a year, which includes maintaining two 90-foot boats, a smaller survey vessel, scanning devices and a staff of 25 people. The operation is funded by investments and treasure sales, the latter which can attract repeat business: Fisher said 80% of their coin and other sales are to people who have bought before.
In the company’s online store, one of the highest-priced items is a silver coin from the Atocha, priced at $32,400. “People like to have a silver coin, a piece of jewelry. It’s a conversation piece,” he said.
A minimum investment in Mel Fisher’s Treasuries is $6,520, but they run to the $150,000 Emerald Level. Investors can visit the wreck site, and the year’s find is shared at an annual Division Party. Investors got an 8-to-1 payoff for the so-called “Atocha Mother Lode,” according to Fisher, who anticipates better payoff for the rest of the ship.
The profit margins, understandably, can fluctuate. Some years, Fisher said, “you find $300,000 or $400,000 [in treasure] and spend $3 million looking for it. Other years, you spend $3 million and find $400 million. There’s no real payoff record.”
To be sure, most financial planners probably wouldn’t recommend treasure hunting as a core component of a portfolio. A 2014 Bloomberg story called treasure hunting “the world’s worst investment” partly based on research suggesting that the objects discovered rarely command hoped-for prices.
Fisher concedes that treasure hunting is a high-risk venture. “One guy once told me his investment adviser told him not to invest, and I told him ‘If your investment adviser tells you to invest in this you should fire him.’ He laughed and signed a $100,000 check for me.”
The search for treasure isn’t easy, involving a lot of sifting through vast miles of sand. The hunt for a Spanish galleon often starts in the national archives in Seville, Spain, which keeps detailed manifests of journeys and cargo. A special linguist is needed to read the ancient documents, Fisher said.
Using the archival information, they re-navigate the course. “If there is any location data — say, there is some survivors from the wreck and they end up on the beach somewhere — then there are records of how long they were in a longboat,” he said.
Working backward, according to Fisher, it’s possible to guess where the boat might have sank based on the distance and direction that the survivors rowed. What the archives told the Fishers about the Atocha, for example, was that it sank five hours rowing from the Marquesas Keys, which ultimately meant covering thousands of square miles of ocean in search of more clues.
The underwater work can be tedious, in part because many sunken ships are worn and hollow shells of their former selves. After hundred of years underwater, only a ship’s metal parts remain, so there is no wooden hull or skeleton clutching a treasure chest. “The waves literally destroyed these ships into thousands of pieces and they floated for miles,” Brisben said.
The Brisbens don’t take outside investment, though they do allow subcontracting on the salvage site. That led to another treasure-hunter headline this summer, when the family of Eric Schmitt, who had been working on the area for years, found gold coins worth an estimated $1 million.
Brisben, like Fisher, is driven by the possibility of another big find at the site that has yielded approximately $7 million of treasure since 2010. He figures that much of the 1715 Fleet has yet to be found, and that about 900,000 silver coins worth $250 each remain on the ocean floor.
“We’ve come up with an estimate that there is over $400 million of treasure out there and the vast majority is in one area,” said Brisben.
The treasure Fisher seeks is part of a hunt 30 years in the making. He expects to find $250 million once the back rear, or sterncastle, which housed the captains and wealthiest passengers, of the Atocha is found, along with the main pile of the Santa Marguerita.
The Atocha and Marguerita were part of a fleet destroyed in the same hurricane in 1622. The hunt is centered in the Florida Keys, where the barrier reef blocks the ocean’s waves and shields salvage ships from hurricanes, allowing the normal three-month summer hunting season to stretch year-round.
“A couple of days ago we found a lead wing with an emerald in it, some kind of decoration,” he said during a recent interview. “It was in a new area we just started exploring around the Atocha, so it’s a good sign.”
But Fisher is also already looking to his next hunt, which he’s code-named “The Lost Merchant Cargo.” Because he hasn’t found anything yet, he has no claim to the rescue, and while he says the site is in international waters near Northern Florida he declined to say more.