Diving for Sunken Treasure

Be a treasure hunter for a day on your Florida vacation as you explore the sunken 18th century Spanish fleets of Florida.


When you think of hunting for sunken treasure, images of swashbuckling pirates likely come to mind. But hunting for sunken treasure hasn’t gone out of style. It’s as alive today as it was 300 years ago, only the techniques for recovery are more refined. And nowhere are today’s treasure salvage efforts more evident than off the coast of Florida, where there’s a wealth of shipwrecks from bygone eras ripe for the picking, laden with riches.

The location of many of these ships has been identified. What if it was your mission to find the booty? Certified scuba divers can do just that under a new program called “Treasure Hunter for the Day” which allows mere mortals to help recover treasures from a fleet of sunken Spanish galleons near Sebastian, Fla. Some of the wrecks lie in only 20 feet of water. For a daily fee, dive enthusiasts can help search for their treasures. Non-divers are welcome to come along for the adventure.

1715 Fleet of Spanish Galleons

Sebastian is a sleepy but charming town about 50 miles north of West Palm Beach. It’s a true bit of old Florida where crusty old fishermen spill their day’s catch on the docks as happy hour begins under straw huts and bare feet take to dancing in the sand. It’s offshore this spot that the bulk of the 1715 fleet was blown asunder during a hurricane. The fleet of 10 Spanish galleons was brimming with chests of silver and gold, precious gems and exotic porcelain from the Far East, all heading back to the King of Spain. Everything was lost in a brutal hurricane in the summer of 1715, with the ships crushed like matchsticks. Some treasure was recovered but the rest was eventually forgotten for the next 200 years.

$900 Million Mother Lode

Fast-forward to the 1950s when the wrecks were “rediscovered” and modern salvaging efforts began. The legendary Mel Fisher, the most renowned sunken treasure hunter of modern times, eventually ended up with the salvaging rights to the fleet in conjunction with the State of Florida. His family has been working the wrecks for years, but recent estimates put the value of treasures still not yet recovered at about $900 million including hundreds of chests holding nearly one million silver coins. Gold Hound Treasure Divers, which salvages on behalf of the Fisher family, plans to find that mother lode, and they initiated the Treasure Hunter for the Day program to let other enthusiasts join the adventure.

One day I signed on, plunging into the waters to comb the sand with my guide. Metal detectors in hand, we soon uncover some ballast stones: river rocks placed in the hulls of old sailing ships to balance them. “That stone hasn’t been seen in nearly 300 years!” exclaims a fellow diver upon our surfacing. They may not be gems, but it’s a start. I ponder what hands last held these stones and whether they really survived the 1715 hurricane.

Weeks later, Gold Hound’s captain, Greg Bounds, strikes paydirt with a few pieces of gold and diamond jewelry. Bounds tells me the pieces hint of the mother lode to come, and he should know. Last summer, he captained a salvage effort on a wreck called the Santa Margarita off Key West. In just two months’ time, he found 16,000 rare pearls worth $12 million from that wreck.

Florida’s Fountain of Shipwrecks

Why are the waters off Florida so rife with shipwrecks? European monarchs in centuries past regularly sent ships to countries like Colombia, which served as a main port for the rich trade routes along South America while Mexico was the hub for routes to the Far East. Ships would accumulate treasures over time and then head home, relying on the brisk winds along the Straights of Florida to carry them north before turning east toward Europe. But the ships regularly fell prey to pirates and hurricanes.

Among the most renowned of such shipwrecks is the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sank off Key West in the same hurricane as the Santa Margarita. In the 1980s, Mel Fisher discovered the Atocha’s treasures, worth more than $400 million. Many of those treasures are displayed at the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum in Key West. A second Mel Fisher museum, in Sebastian, displays the goodies recovered from the 1715 Fleet. Yet another museum in Sebastian, the McLarty Treasure Museum, displays still more 1715 discoveries.

Finding Riches

So what are the rewards of joining in to help find such riches of the deep? “Thrill seekers don’t get to keep the treasures, only find them,” says Captain Bounds. “But they’ll help rewrite history.” Or, at the very least, they’ll have tall tales to tell of pirates, sunken treasure and the search for ancient riches.

Gold Hound Treasure Hunter for a Day program is $299 for certified divers and $149 for observers. Visit or call 772-633-0728.

Destinations: Florida, Sebastian, Key West

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Scuba Diving

User Comments

I dove the wreck saw the anchor and stone the weather can change in a minute, thats why a wreck is there plus cuda, Jack

Sounds like a lot of fun! This looks like a good reason to finally learn how to dive.

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