Treasure-huntin' life not all pure gold

FORT PIERCE INLET STATE PARK — Doug Pope has not spent 20 years hunting for sunken treasure — left by 18th century Spanish fleets and now the region's namesake — to get rich.

"It's a way of life," said the 58-year-old retired Army helicopter pilot, who spends most of his time on the Polly-L, a custom-made 4,800-square-foot lift boat, similar to rigs used in the off-shore oil business.

"If I had a dollar for every time someone took a picture of this boat, I could build two more," Pope said Tuesday, standing on the top deck of the four-story vessel.

When he's not working, Pope lives and runs his company, Amelia Research and Recovery LLC, from his home and office in Fernandina Beach.

But Pope is always working.

For now, that means waiting for the state Department of Environmental Protection and Army Corps of Engineers to sign off on the company's latest Treasure Coast project at Tiger Shores, an 18-square-mile site just north of Stuart Beach.

Pope and his partner, Dave Jordan, began exploring the area in February in search of historical artifacts associated with a shipwreck possibly from the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet.

Last week, the state Bureau of Archaeological Research approved an amendment to the contract allowing Pope and Jordan, and their crew, to use a propeller-powered excavation tool.

"We were wasting our time before the state decided to let us use that," Pope said. "We've been working on this now for three years."

Digging around on the ocean floor for centuries-old treasure "is a constant battle," Pope said. "I'm surprised the state rolled over and changed their minds on this one."

But Roger Smith, the state's top underwater archaeologist, said the equipment allowance was "routine" and comes with a stipulation to protect the integrity of the potential find and the environment.

Still, Pope said the Tiger Shores dig finally can get somewhere now their equipment has been OK'd.

Pope, who has been chasing lost fortunes along Florida coast since forming his company in 1988, said he has a feeling the project will finally lead to the big pay-off.

He and other Florida treasure hunters spend thousands of dollars to set up elaborate scuba diving excursions and agree up front to donate 20 percent of their booty to the state.

"The financial burden is stressful," said Pope, who reports to a board of directors and whose operation is underwritten by 180 investors. Mel Fisher, who died in 1998, is a noted industry trailblazer who discovered millions of dollars worth of treasure along the Treasure Coast and Florida Keys.

Pope has found only about $400,000 worth of gold and silver doubloons and other valuables since setting his sights on treasure hunting. But he said he isn't planning his retirement yet, at least not until after the Tiger Shores project gets started again in June.

"Everyday is Christmas in the treasure-hunting business," he said. "I go to bed with gold doubloons dancing in my head."