Posted on Fri


Posted on Fri, Mar. 30, 2007

Search for shipwreck yields no gold - so far

By Kathleen Mcgrory

McClatchy Newspapers


HUTCHINSON ISLAND, Fla. - The boat is rumbling and the coffee is hot and sweet.

It's the only way to hunt for treasure - or so says Doug Pope.

Pope has spent the past few weeks on a 71-foot treasure recovery boat called the Polly-L. He's hoping to find a Spanish galleon that may have wrecked off the coast of Hutchinson Island in 1715.

"This could be the real deal," says Pope, clutching the 17th Century Spanish coin he wears around his neck. "The research says a shipwreck should be there."

The research wasn't what first lured Pope to the site. Instead, it was a seemingly outlandish tale told by Dave Jordan, a retired sailor claiming to have discovered cannons in the water as a kid.

The history checked out, and so Pope, a seasoned treasure hunter, checked in. He met up with Johnson, and the two got started.

Their dreams evoke those of famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher, who famously struck it rich when he discovered the wreckage of the Spanish galleon La Senora de Atocha off the Florida Keys.

Jordan's story starts in October of 1978. He was 15 then and a novice surfer.

One day after school, a friend invited Jordan to Tiger Shores Beach to catch a few waves. At first, Jordan hesitated; a Nor'easter had passed through the night before, and the water was choppy and cold.

"But for some reason," recalled Jordan, "I put on a wet suit and went along anyway."

While Jordon was surfing, a huge wave sent him crashing beneath the ocean's surface. There, in about 15 feet of water, the storm had cleared out much of the sand, revealing a row of thick, black tubes.

"I swam down and grabbed onto one," he said. "I thought to myself, `Man, these are cannons.'"

Jordan swears he kept his discovery a secret.

Flash forward to 2003.

Jordan was living in North Carolina and about to end a long career in the U.S. Navy. To celebrate the retirement, Jordan's wife suggested they put a flag pole outside their home.

Jordan said he'd prefer a cannon. Then, he told her why.

Later that week, Jordan and his wife decided to try to salvage the cannons from Tiger Shores Beach. They sent out inquiries to several wreckage companies, many of which expressed interest.

The reason: A fleet of Spanish treasure ships stationed off the coast of Florida had been destroyed by a hurricane in 1715. Some had been found and produced millions of dollars for the salvors. Several others remained untouched.

The area was so rich with treasure, it had been nicknamed The Treasure Coast.

"There's no doubt that one of the ships, the Urca de Lima, was lost in that area in the great hurricane of 1715," said Dr. Eugene Lyons, an expert in Spanish colonial history from the Treasure Coast.

Jordan contacted Pope, the CEO of Amelia Research & Recovery. Pope's company had made national headlines in 2002, when one of its divers found a 40.2-carat emerald inside a queen conch shell off the Florida Keys.

It took more than two years to secure the necessary permits to dig, Pope said. First, he and his team needed permission to survey the area with a magnetometer, a device used to find ferrous metals buried deep underneath the sand. After they found abnormal magnetic fields in the area - a good sign, according to Pope - they needed explicit permission to begin excavation.

Pope and his crew finally got the official go-ahead to dig early last month. They traveled to the site aboard the Polly-L, Pope's four-story lift-boat used for coastal shipwreck salvage, and set-up shop in a small inlet.

The $2.3 million boat can stay at sea for several weeks and can withstand a Category 2 hurricane, Pope said.

For the past several weeks, the crew has called the Polly-L home. They've been sleeping in the staterooms and eating meals together in the galley. The cost: $4,500 per day.

Lately, heavy surf has prevented the divers from being in the water as frequently as they had hoped to be.

Further complicating things: The crew has had to work around the framework of an old bridge - not exactly an 18th Century antiquity.

So far, Amelia Research has spent about $50,000 on this project. They've made only one significant find: a fragment of pottery believed to be from the 19th Century.

It may the only thing they find for a few months. The crew has to travel to another site, and won't return to Tiger Shores until June.

If they do find any treasure when they return, they'll have to petition the state for another permit, this one allowing them to pull up wreckage. By law, they would have to give 20 percent of the findings to the state of Florida.

On a recent morning, Pope and two of his divers gathered in the galley of the Polly-L for sausage biscuits and hot coffee. They stared out at the surf, doubtful they would be able to dive that day.

"This job can be frustrating sometimes," Pope said. "But if it isn't the greatest adventure in the world, I don't know what is."


​​Amelia Research & Recovery, LLC