He looks for treasures under the sea

Published 7:50 pm Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Mike Brown, a retired Major from the U.S. Marine Corps, resides in Albany. He now has time to pursue a hobby turned into a part-time profession as a recovery diver.

He spoke to Rotary this week about ongoing recovery of the 1715 Treasure Fleet of 12 ships sailing from Havana for Spain.

He began diving for treasure in 2008 off the coast of Florida near Vero Beach and Sebastian, where the shipwrecks have occurred. The remains from one of the 12 ships was found there in 1959, but lack of modern technology prevented intensive salvage.

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He described the job as diving into 20-30 foot of water and drilling holes in the ocean floor where time and tides have buried the treasures carried on the fleet.

He said there is still an estimated $500 million in treasure to recover from that area.

The first few years Brown said he didn’t find much and was beginning to get discouraged. Then, in July 2010 his team hit what he called the Jackpot bronze cannon with 22 gold coins inside — total net worth of $1 million dollars.

On July 31, 2010, he found his first gold coin and was so excited that he came up and hit the bottom of the boat.

He continued to chronicle the finds in each season for years from to 2015, showing slide photos of the gold and silver coins, a silver boot buckle, a silver sword pommel and grip, jewelry, a thimble, and an alabaster ink well believed to have been made by the Mayans. The seasons are defined as the months of June, July and August when conditions are at their calmest.

He described the 2013 season as a great one, when the team discovered 51 gold coins and 8 lbs. of gold chain in one day. But the best find to date was July 31, 2015, the 300-year anniversary of the wreck. They found 350 gold coins all together and 40 foot of gold chain, worth 4.5 million dollars. All of the coins are hand-made.

His team has an 80/20 split agreement with the state of Florida, which assigns point values to each find, and the state takes the 20 percent. Many of the finds go to museums, and some are sold to private collectors.

Brown explained that after hurricanes some of the treasures are dislodged and wash up on the beaches where any finder is a keeper. The territory from the waterline to the dunes is considered public domain.

He says his biggest reward actually comes from finding and sharing the stories of the treasures, as he speaks at clubs, organizations and conventions.

He is also writing a book called “On the Trail of the 1715 Fleet,” he hopes to finish by this summer.

Brown indicated there are two schools of thought on the recovery of these items. There are those who believe it should all just be left and preserved undisturbed. He and his teammates believe it is best to reclaim and preserve the items, while researching the history. The team has a conservator on staff who works to certify all finds.