NAPLES — For years, sunken treasure off Florida’s coast has been a relative free-for-all for anyone with the time and ability to find it.
But proposed rules could make it harder for treasure hunters to collect the prized relics.
Some commercial salvers suggest the waters off of Florida contain more Colonial-era sunken treasure than any other place in the world, with a value estimated to be in the billions of dollars. Salvage companies estimate at least a million dollars worth of treasure is in the Naples/Fort Myers area alone and artifacts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars are salvaged in and around Southwest Florida, by both commercial and recreational divers, each year.
Treasure hunting has been legal in Florida since the 1960’s. Recently, however, groups of marine archaeologists are fighting to have the practice outlawed. Many in this camp consider treasure hunting to be little more than state-sanctioned looting of what they believe should be deemed historical sites. These groups are pushing for tougher laws and outright bans in many cases.
Over the past decade, marine archaeologists have successfully championed greater restrictions on Florida’s treasure hunting industry and have recently brought requests for modifications to the state’s rules governing the recovery of historical shipwrecks by private sector salvers. Their requests would limit salvage permits to a period of one year and narrow search areas to one mile. They would also mandate that an archeologist be on board the search vessel. The proposal would prohibit hunters from searching for treasure up to 500 yards offshore — the range that is considered the most treasure-rich because storms and hurricanes naturally wash shipwrecks toward the shore.
The rules could threaten the livelihoods of local treasure hunters, such as Captain Kym Ferrell, a Florida native who has been working aboard salvage vessels since he was 14. He and a small crew of three to four people choose search sites based on historical research, instinct and knowledge of the local waters. Ferrell said he’s found treasure near Naples but would not say where.
Even simple, single day dives can be costly, Ferrell said. Fuel, supplies and salvage permits are expensive. On a recent dive by Ferrell, permits were $600 per site. A single wreck can have several different sites, depending on its size. Treasure hunters also have to give the state 20 percent of their find.
“Still, treasure hunting is one of the few industries left that allows people to use their strength and wits to earn whatever profit they can find for themselves,” Ferrell said. “The ocean doesn’t care who you are or what you have. If you’re smart enough to find the treasure, you can hit it big. In that sense, treasure hunting is very American.”
Treasure hunters argue that without their efforts many of the sites would never be excavated, resulting in a loss of artifacts and treasure. Roughly 20 percent of all of the artifacts in Florida’s museums – more than 30,000 items — have been donated by treasure hunters.
On the other side of the argument are scientists who fear that the lure of treasure and the cost of retrieving it forces some hunters to destroy much of the history that could be salvaged from a site.
In a December meeting in Paris, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization discussed a ban on commercial exploration of underwater historical sites.
“Treasure hunting is driven by commercial logic, and not by the concern for increasing our knowledge of history,” said Mounir Bouchenaki, Assistant Director of General Culture for UNESCO. “Time is money, so treasure hunters must work quickly to raise as many artifacts as possible. We gain an enormous amount of knowledge from wreck sites, but with treasure hunters, all of this is lost. Proper records are not kept and salvaged artifacts get scattered around the world in private collections. This is a tragic loss for humanity as a whole. Where there is no knowledge, there is no memory.”
Professional treasure hunters say they take exceptional care when excavating a wreck site. According to Taffy Fisher, daughter of the late Mel Fisher, one of the country’s most famous and prosperous treasure hunters, “we have professional marine archaeologists and marine biologists with us on every dive to ensure that artifacts are removed and handled properly, and that the surrounding marine environment is not disturbed. Every detail of each dive is meticulously photographed, recorded and cataloged.”
It will likely be several years before any final verdict is decided regarding the fate of treasure hunting, but, according to Ferrell, as long as there is unclaimed treasure lying at the bottom of the sea, there’s likely to be somebody willing dive in after it.
Ferrell recently introduced Dr. John Wolf, a Naples dentist, to treasure hunting. Wolf commissioned a half-day pleasure cruise for his dental staff out of Doctor’s Pass with Ferrell and his crew.
“It was fantastic,” Wolf said. “Beautiful. I found a silver coin my first day out.”
Wolf said he has since gone “hunting” with Ferrell a dozen or so times, and found scores of coins.
Depending on its age and condition, a single silver coin can be worth up to $1,000 and a similarly-sized gold coin can fetch as much as $20,000 at Christies Auction House – one of the world’s leading experts on the sale of legally salvaged sunken treasures and artifacts.
“I’ve had beautiful jewelry made for my wife,” Wolf said. “I also donated several pieces to my daughter’s school, Seacrest Country Day School, for their annual auction.”