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Treasuring the hunt


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

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 tenta