Tuesday, April 11, 2006

 

Shipwreck salvage proves profitable for treasure hunter

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The Palm Beach Post
By Sharon Wernlund
April 10, 2006


FORT PIERCE — Fresh from a special trip to his bank vault, John Brandon, captain of the Endeavor, shows a smidgen of his treasure from sunken Spanish galleons.

Gold doubloons and silver coins are clustered with gold bars that cast a mesmerizing glow. Made of bronze but no less magnificent is a rare astrolabe, dated 1602, that was used for navigation to the New World.

The 52-year-old Fort Pierce man even has lugged along an 80-pound silver bar that he found in 1985 while diving at the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, sunk in 1622 in a powerful hurricane off Key West.

Total estimated value of this informal show and tell is a stunning $250,000.

"When you see gold laying on the ocean floor, it looks just like this," says Brandon, holding a gleaming bar in his hand. "It's so shiny and beautiful."

Is he a millionaire? Brandon won't say, but he flaunts his gold to make a bold statement.

An ounce of the precious metal is in a chunky pendant beneath his graying beard. In 1984, he traded a gold brick for a new Cadillac Eldorado. Even his business card, showing him in scuba gear with gobs of gold, hawks his sideline of coin and treasure sales.

"I've done very, very well. I'm set," the ponytailed father of twins says.

When asked about the wealth of his knowledge as a treasure salvor, Brandon quickly credits the late Mel Fisher. The world-renowned treasure hunter, who died in 1998, was his boss, mentor and friend.

Throughout Brandon's 36-year career, he has been associated with Fisher and his clan's shipwreck salvage operation, which has grabbed world attention for its treasure trove finds.

A media frenzy erupted in 1985 when the Fisher family discovered the mother lode of the Atocha, reported to be the richest vessel ever to sink in U.S. waters. Years of searching finally paid off with cargo estimated at $400 million in gold, silver and precious gems.

"I found a 2 1/2 -foot gold belt at the Atocha that Christie's appraised at $1.2 million," Brandon says. "That's the most spectacular find I ever made. It had diamonds, rubies and pearls."

The gold belt is on permanent display with more than $20 million worth of shipwreck treasure and historical artifacts at the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum in Key West.

"Mel had a very good sense about his obligation to history," says Brandon, a descendant of the founders of the city of Brandon. "When he found all this stuff, he didn't just put it in vaults or give to the investors to sell. He put the best of the best in the museum for the public domain."

Brandon was just 13 when he found his first treasure, a Spanish silver coin, with a metal detector on a Fort Pierce beach. Then and there, he got the bug to be a treasure hunter under Mel Fisher.

But landing a summer job with the legendary salvor was not so easy. It would take three years before Fisher finally hired him in 1970 at the age of 16.

"I got 65 bucks a week and got to live on the boat," Brandon says. "I didn't get any share of the treasure when I started. But again, you start at the bottom and work your way up."

Employees share a percentage of booty, based on a seniority system.

By 17, Brandon was proving his worth. A faded photograph shows the happy teenager after an ascent from a shipwreck with a big smile and double handfuls of silver coins.

"Everything I know I learned from Mel and the talented people who worked for him," Brandon says. "History. Archaeology. Geology. Electronics. You name it."

Today, Brandon works as a salvor for 11 Spanish ships that sank in the 1715 hurricane off the coast of Fort Pierce and Vero Beach. Laden with gold bullion and silver coins, the fleet was returning to Spain when strong winds battered its ships against coral reefs.

It was here in the 1960s that Fisher made his first major discovery and gave the Treasure Coast its name.

"Most treasure off Fort Pierce is in less than 20 feet of water," Brandon says. "The Spaniards were good at building ships and very good sailors, even in a hurricane. If they could stay in deep water, they usually didn't sink.

"It was only if they were driven in and hit the reef. Whether you're the Exxon Valdez or a Spanish galleon, when you hit the rocks, you're going to sink and come apart. Doesn't matter if you're 21st century or 18th century."

As he prepares the Endeavor for salvage season from May to September, Brandon says the 1715 fleet is still lucrative, even though it has been excavated for more than 40 years.

"There's still at least 40 or 50 tons of silver coins that are missing out there," he says. "Lots of gold, lots of artifacts. They will be making major finds on this fleet long after I'm in the ground."

Everything found, no matter how small or valuable, is meticulously recorded and plotted with Global Positioning System coordinates.

"This is a genuine, honest-to-God treasure map," Brandon says as he unrolls a computer-generated chart of a shipwreck site.

Colored dots are noted at various longitudes and latitudes in all directions. Each color denotes a type of find. Red means gold. Blue is silver. Black is for musket balls.

"We find and record everything they had on the vessels," Brandon says. "Swords, guns, eating utensils, even gold toothpicks."

Finding treasure and artifacts is no accident. To the glee of future salvors, Brandon says a lot more shipwrecks and treasure remain to be found and claimed. And he gives this free advice to such salvors:

"You want luck to be the least common denominator. You want to rely on methodology, technology and perseverance, and that will usually equal success."


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