Treasuring the hunt
Captains Carl Fismer and John Brandon are top notch treasure hunters who have recovered millions of dollars in gold, silver, and other artifacts. MICHAEL EVANS PHOTO
Uncovering sunken riches is more of a passion than a profession
BY DONNA CRARY
What could be more thrilling than finding hidden treasure? The glimmer of gold and silver dazzles the mind, makes the heart beat faster and stirs the senses to find more. According to two of the greatest treasure hunters, it lies beneath the ocean’s aquamarine depths and sometimes washes up on the Treasure Coast.
In the world of treasure salvors, captains John Brandon and Carl Fismer, each of whom has received the prestigious Mel Fisher Lifetime Achievement Award, are the real deal. Searching for precious metals and artifacts is not only their hobby, it is their lifelong passion.
But their journeys haven’t been easy. Their lives have been mixed with peaks and valleys with little level playing field in between. They know the intoxicating thrill of bringing up handfuls of gold and silver. They have also experienced the dangers and misfortune that accompany life at sea. Their stories of adventure are inspiring, and they may lead you to hunt for some buried treasure.
It takes a lot more than desire to become a real treasure hunter. Carl Fismer, who has worked on more than 300 shipwrecks, authored two books and hosted the show Treasure Divers, remembers when he first learned what is involved. He approached Art McKee, who is often called the father of modern treasure hunting, in hopes of working with him and getting firsthand diving experience.
McKee, no relation to McKee Botanical Gardens founder Arthur McKee, sized Fismer up and wanted to know if he had a captain’s license, ever worked as an engine mechanic, cooked for a hungry crew or had medical training. Reluctantly, Fismer had no experience in these areas. He went back home and over time earned his Coast Guard’s captain ticket, his EMT and paramedic licenses, learned small-engine repair and volunteered to cook at a Sarasota fire station.
PERSISTENCE PAYS OFF
Emboldened and feeling he had met McKee’s requirements, he again asked if he could work with him for free and learn. After hearing about Fismer’s hard-won skills, McKee finally gave him the answer he had been waiting to hear.
“ ‘Well, Carl, it looks like you’re gonna be going out with me on my next dive,’ ” Fismer writes in Unchartered Waters.
His training under McKee opened up a new career for him. In 1980, Fismer left a secure job as a fire medic with the Sarasota Fire Department and opened a treasure hunting business. From then on, he would travel around the world salvaging shipwrecks and recovering millions of dollars in gold, silver, jewels and other artifacts.
Some are lucky enough to know exactly from childhood what they want to do for the rest of their lives. For John Brandon, becoming a treasure hunter was not an option, but a calling. A Florida native, he grew up on the beaches of Fort Pierce, where he found his first 1715 Fleet silver coin at the age of 13. He was captivated by stories of finding sunken treasure told through a friend, Don Porter, who went on salvaging trips with Mel Fisher. Later that same year, Brandon’s world would change at Porter’s home.
“At Don’s house, he introduced me to Mel,” he recalled. “They had come back from the wreck sites, Mel had a towel full of gold and silver they had brought in from that day and laid it on the table and showed it to me. I knew right then, for sure, what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. In fact, I asked Mel for a job that day. I’m 13, and he said, ‘Not yet, you’re too young — but try back in a few years.’ ”
Fismer dove with renowned science fiction writer Sir Arthur Clarke in his last filmed deep sea dive in Sri Lanka. ROBERT LEWIS KNECHT PHOTO
IT TAKES A TEAM
Those were the early years of the 1960s — when Fisher unearthed precious gold, silver and artifacts from sunken Spanish galleons just off the Treasure Coast. Brandon watched and studied his unprecedented work, while relentlessly begging him for a job.
His persistence eventually paid off when Fisher hired Brandon when he was 17. He became Fisher’s youngest boat captain at 19, a partner later on and worked for him until Fisher died in 1998. From his vessel the M/V Endeavor, Brandon retrieved treasure and artifacts worth millions of dollars. It was the beginning of a journey that helped uncover some of history’s most legendary shipwrecks.
If you read Treasure Island, it’s easy to romanticize treasure hunters as adventurers sailing on the high seas, who find a map that leads to a chest of jewels. But finding a treasure trove is much more complex in real life. It’s a difficult, time-consuming and expensive venture — and only the few who persevere eventually wind up with the loot.
“If it was easy, everyone would be doing it,” Brandon said. “Most people don’t realize all the things that are involved.”
Treasure hunting is a lot like solving a detective story. You need a team of historians, archaeologists, electronic experts, divers and boat handlers to unlock the mystery of missing shipwrecks. They look for all kinds of clues that were on the ships — ballast stones, pottery shards, spikes, musket and cannon balls, cannons — to solve how the ship broke up.
“What we try to do is to define a debris field and we look for dispersal patterns within that debris field,” Brandon said. “It’s more a study in chaos than in any kind of science. You might find 10 silver coins here; 15 feet — 10 more; 20 feet — 10 more; and then maybe a half a mile before you find any more. It’s just that random and hard to figure. You want luck to be the least common denominator. You want to bring all the technology and information together to put you in the right spot.”
STILL MORE TO UNCOVER
The Treasure Coast earned its name for the great caches of lost silver and gold that were discovered off the region’s coastline. Most of the scattered riches have been linked to the 1715 Plate Fleet, which left the New World to return home to Spain. Eleven ships were wrecked by a hurricane and sank on July 31, 1715.
Some experts estimate that $750 million of registered silver from the 1715 Fleet is still out there, waiting to be caught. The coast is littered with other shipwrecks from the 1500s and 1600s that haven’t been found, as well.
“The beaches from Fort Pierce to Sebastian are the best ones in the whole world to find treasure,” Fismer said. “I can’t believe everyone in this area doesn’t have a metal detector.”
Brandon agrees, understanding the value of what lies beneath the sand.
“My best day on the beach was at John’s Island in February 1980,” he said. “I found 351 Spanish silver coins and four gold coins in one day with a metal detector.”
Fismer worked on the 1715 wreck site for a total of 17 years and has collected more than 5,000 coins and other artifacts. He recalls diving at the Cabin wreck with Jack Haskins in 1984. They came across a cannon, turned it over and found a glimmering surprise.
“When we brought the cannon out of the hole, I said, ‘Geez-ooo-wee!’ There were 200 pieces of eight, stuck on the bottom,” he said. “All of the coins were in excellent condition because iron oxidizes faster than silver. If the coins had been laying around on the ocean floor unprotected, they would have oxidized. That cannon protected those coins.”
A TROVE OF STORIES
Brandon has worked on the 1715 Fleet for more than 47 years uncovering many stores of gold, silver, and artifacts. He recalls a particular day in 1988 when he and Moe Molinar were at the Douglass Beach wreck site.
“We followed a trail of gold coins for a half a mile. Between Moe’s boat and my boat, we found just over 1,000 gold coins,” he said.
Having a discerning eye, he also found 2,000 pieces of eight at the Cabin wreck, just south of Wabasso Beach in 1979. The coins were postdated no later than 1618 and have been tentatively linked to the San Martin, the almirante of the Honduran fleet that sank in 1618.
Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum in Sebastian highlights Fisher’s best find. The Nuestra Senora de Atocha sank in a hurricane somewhere near the Florida Keys in 1622 with one of the richest New World cargoes ever assembled. Beginning in 1969, Fisher made searching for the Atocha his top priority. Led by Eugene Lyon’s research of archival Spanish manuscripts, Fisher zeroed in on the Marquesas Keys to begin his search.
In 1973, John Brandon was sent to follow the trail just southeast of the galleon anchor found on the site. Using buoys to mark the previous finds, they brought up numerous artifacts including swords, muskets, daggers, potsherds, silver coins and pieces of eight.
Brandon, aboard the M/V Endeavor with longtime friend and mentor Mel Fisher, surveying the Douglass Beach Wreck site off Fort Pierce. JOHN BRANDON COLLECTION
BIG ATOCHA DISCOVERY
Hot on the trail, they dug a hole in the ocean’s bottom, and the sand suddenly turned black. The divers hit a jackpot. They found almost 1,500 pieces of silver, which was named the Bank of Spain.
“I was down there and there were silver coins everywhere,” Brandon said. “This was our first big find of the Atocha. I was the first guy who came up with a double handful of coins. When you finally find a pile of treasure, it’s exciting, unimaginable. It’s amazing to see it on the bottom — to know that it was your goal and you went through all the hardships and you were able to find it.”
Shortly after the Bank of Spain discovery, the salvors dug up three heavy silver bars with particular markings. They knew they had hit something big.
“It’s hard to prove the identity of a shipwreck — that is to say, to find archaeological evidence that positively matches the archival evidence,” Brandon said. “On the 1715 Fleet, we still can’t say which wreck is which. On the Atocha, we had silver bars that actually had monograms that matched the manifest. So we could say this was from the Atocha, beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
The diving crew continued to work on the wreck site a couple of years and found all kinds of artifacts including indigo dye, ballast stones, gold bars, gold chains, navigational equipment, artifices, flintwood rifles, swords, cannon and musket balls.
TRAGEDY DARKENS FIND
Then in 1975, Dirk Fisher, Mel’s older son, found nine bronze cannons. All directions seemed to be pointing to the Atocha. But just as they were riding high the wave of good fortune, little did they know they were about to crash. Brandon recalls the last night he spent with Dirk and Angel Fisher on the Northwind to celebrate their successful finds.
“We stayed on the boat until midnight or 1 — dreaming of treasure, all the wealth, fame, and archaeology that was going to happen — the history that we were going to make,” he said. “We left to go back out on the Virgilona, and in the middle of the night, the Northwind sinks. We lose Dirk, his wife Angel and another diver, Rick Gage. I brought Dirk out of the wreck. We were in tears. We were best friends. We partied, had a good time, living the dream, out hunting treasure. That was the worst part, but we kept going.”
Ten years later, Kane Fisher picked up the trail that his older brother, Dirk, had left behind. He and his crew intensely searched the area and eventually they found a ballast stone. Then a little farther out, they found a piece of pottery and other clues, as they continued on their path.
“Looking for a highly dispersed shipwreck in shallow water, in a high-energy marine environment is very difficult,” Brandon said. “People think of shipwrecks as going down in a pile — they never do. They were sunk in hurricanes, and when they hit the reefs, they’re done. They go to the bottom. So these wrecks are spread out for many linear miles.”
Like a skilled detective, Fisher studied and followed the trail. They brought up gold bars, emeralds, and other beautiful pieces of jewelry. Treasure kept coming up.
A DAY OF GOOD FORTUNE
Then on July 20, 1985, they hit pay dirt. With unbelieving eyes, they unearthed a $450 million cache including 40 tons of silver and gold, Colombian emeralds, silver and gold artifacts, and more than 1,000 silver bars. Kane Fisher radioed a message to his father, to throw away the charts — they had found the mother lode.
“On that day, Mel said to me, ‘John, do you know what day this is?’ ” Brandon recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, Mel, I know what day this is!’ It was so cool. Dirk was up there smiling and looking down on us. Ten years to the very day that he died, on his trail, we found the main pile of the Atocha.”
Probably one of Fismer’s most memorable diving experiences was with Sir Arthur Clarke. A renowned science fiction writer, Clarke was famous for co-writing the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. He was also an avid scuba diver. His interest in being underwater was tied to his love for space travel — he wanted to experience weightlessness. He worked with Jacques Cousteau to perfect scuba equipment and discovered buried treasure at the Taj Mahal. His diving explorations ended in the 1960s, when he developed a paralysis.
Fismer was invited to dive with Clarke in 1992, as part of a documentary filmed near his home in Sri Lanka. It was the first dive that Clarke made, since he became disabled 30 years before. He was inspired by Fismer’s diving explorations with disabled divers and was ready to take the plunge.
On that filmed dive, Clarke learned that you are never too old to accomplish new goals, as he was completely fit and mobile underwater.
“If I never do another dive again, that will be a good way to go out … beautiful!” he said.
“It was indeed his last scuba dive,” Fismer said. “It was an honor and a privilege to film Sir Arthur on his final dive.”
Spanish archival documents like this one shown at the Mel Fisher Museum were researched to learn details about sunken galleons. RICK CRARY PHOTO
NEVER BACK DOWN
With the undersea as their office, treasure hunters frequently encounter predatory creatures like barracuda and sharks. Undaunted, Fismer deals with them like it’s a natural part of his job.
“People talk about sharks — we see them almost all the time and big ones!” he said. “I’ve had only two of them turn in a hostile manner. I just stood my ground and they swam off. I’m not running, and I’m thinking, ‘You’re going to eat this tank.’ ”
So what then really frightens him?
“Congress,” he said without hesitation.
Fismer knows how to stand his ground when dealing with Washington. He is an outspoken advocate for the rights of treasure hunters. He exercised his democratic right back in 1987, when Congress was seeking to pass The Abandoned Ship Law. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas was one of the politicians who sought to curb treasure hunting activities. Fismer received a personal invitation to address the senator, after giving Bentsen’s lawyer a winning argument.
“I said, ‘In the case of the 1715 Spanish Fleet shipwrecks, how can a government tell me that I can’t dive on a ship that sank 17 years before George Washington was born in 1732? As for the Atocha, that’s even more years before our first president was born.’ The lawyer’s answer was, ‘I’d hate to have to argue that in court.’ ”
Brandon shows off some of the bright glimmering gold that he has found. RICK CRARY PHOTO
CARETAKERS OF HISTORY
The hallmark of a treasure hunter is simply refusing to give up the hunt. Perseverance and patience are key to stay in the game.
“You’ve got to know that you’re on the right track and that it will eventually pay off,” said Brandon. “You have to stay focused. And you can’t quit — you can’t give up.”
Nothing is more thrilling to treasure hunters than the adrenaline rush of spotting that rare find. Yet, they see their roles not only as finders of ancient riches, but as caretakers of historical artifacts.
“I really like that I’m touching something that somebody lost, and it hasn’t been touched for hundreds of years,” Fismer said. “Jack Haskins used to say, ‘We are returning to public domain coins and artifacts that have been lost for centuries, and we are the ones who are doing it.’ ”
So how long do these divers plan to search for treasure?
“How long do I have?” Fismer said with a laugh.
Fismer shows no signs of slowing down. Feeling healthy, he continues to dive to find shipwrecks, fundraises for charity and travels around the country on the speaking circuit spreading the gospel of treasure hunting. His optimistic message of yes, you can sums up his drive for overcoming obstacles and getting the most out of life.
Brandon manages 1715 Fleet — Queens Jewels, the largest permitted historical shipwreck salvage operation in Florida waters, which holds the state contracts and the federal admiralty rights to the 1715 Fleet wrecks. He also continues to salvage historical shipwrecks.
Brandon also says that he won’t let age prevent him from doing the job that he loves. He’s planned a special apparatus that will help him find treasure well into his golden years.
“I’ve already designed a lift that will pick me up from my wheelchair and set me on the ocean’s bottom, when I’m 85 years old,” he said. “I intend to do this as long as I possibly can get on the back of a boat.”
Fismer and Brandon demonstrate that real treasure hunters don’t retire — they just keep on finding troves of treasure. It’s not a job with them, but a never-ending passion that keeps them going.
“It’s the excitement and the adventure — it’s a lot of fun,” Brandon said. “Any day that you clear the inlet and it’s clear and calm, it’s a good day. Even if you don’t bring anything up, it’s a good day. What’s the saying, a bad day at fishing is better than a good day at the office? It’s kind of that — it’s being out in the ocean and trying to take back what it took away, so long ago.”