Florida's hidden treasures
Two sides fight for the rights to the ocean floorDecember 5, 1996
web posted at: 6:30 a.m. EST
From Correspondent Peggy Knapp
KEY WEST, Florida (CNN) -- Kane Fisher and his family have hunted sunken treasure for more than three decades. About 20 years ago, they hit it big off the coast of Florida -- 47 tons of gold and silver worth more than $400 million.
Professional treasure salvagers call it the "mother lode." But now, as more Americans take to the water in hopes of duplicating Fisher's discovery, the stakes are being raised even higher. (2.1MB/49 sec. QuickTime movie of the "mother load")
The waters of South Florida have become a battleground between those who want to preserve the ecology and its history, and those who want to salvage it. It's hidden treasure versus a living treasure -- the coral reef -- and a tourist industry worth $2 billion a year.
This story is from a CNN special series:
A pirate's dream
"Well, it started when I was a little boy," said Dedo. "I've always wanted to go treasure diving. "There's a little bit of treasure salvaging in all of us."
So Dedo and Crawford enrolled in a treasure hunting seminar to learn the secrets of the trade.
"You know, that fires up your imagination," Dedo said. "You can imagine the pirates and the Spanish conquistadors and the gold and the silver and everything they brought back. And so, you look and figure 'Maybe I can get a little piece of history.'"
As part of the seminar, the participants headed out to a wreck site known for its potential wealth of gold coins. Using the ship's engine as a blower, the crew cleared a hole in the sand below the water.
The divers spent long, cold hours searching the holds, their ears straining to hear the golden sound of the metal detector, their eyes straining to see through the silt and mud.
Was it worth it?
"Absolutely," said Dedo. "Just when you find something, it makes it all worthwhile."
Emeralds prove powerful motivation
In the 17th and 18th centuries, hurricanes sent Spanish galleons crashing onto the reefs, the ships' fortunes spilling into the seas. So if a diver is lucky enough to find a lost treasure, the payoffs can be worth a king's ransom.
Crawford found a tiny emerald on her seminar dive, a small green chunk that will sell for around $9,000.
The discovery came as her group searched for the remains of a 70-pound box of emeralds that sank in 1622. Using heavy dredges, the crew vacuumed up the ocean bottom, sifting through the sand and mud. Seventy pounds of emeralds can be powerful motivation.
South Florida is full of people who dream of finding emeralds on the ocean floor, or a sunken chest of ancient gold. But that could become an impossible dream. How to use the surrounding waters has become one of the most contentious issues in the area.
'An underwater bombing range'
It's the cloud that hangs over the ocean floor's silver lining. Archaeologists and environmentalists say treasure hunters are plundering the ecosystem, destroying the reef in their hunt for fortune.
"It looks exactly like an underwater bombing range," said John Gifford, a marine archaeologist at the University of Miami. "There are craters anywhere from 20 feet to 40 feet in diameter and 5 to 15 feet deep."
This undersea territory is owned by the U.S. government. In order to protect the Florida Keys, Congress passed a law in 1990 turning the entire area, 2,800 nautical miles, into a marine sanctuary.
"I think we all want to see less pollution in the ocean," said Billy Causey of the Florida National Marine Sanctuary. "I think we all want to see healthy marine resources. Someone has to be there to monitor that health. Someone has to be there to tell us when those resources are declining."
Protection versus violation
That's where the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration comes in. The NOAA would coordinate the efforts of all the other agencies that already regulate, protect and educate in the Keys area, a multitude of groups ranging from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to Save A Turtle, Inc.
However, such an idea has treasure salvagers like Michelle Usher calling the NOAA bureaucratic pirates who steal divers' rights. And what started out as a proposal to save the area's main attraction site has become a battle within the community.
"It violates constitutional rights," Usher said. "It violates human rights. It violates international law. And it's fundamentally flawed because it's not based on science."
Gifford says he doesn't expect the divers to operate with the precision of an archaeologist, but he doesn't expect them to be treasure-hunting, either.
"I think it should be outlawed," he said. "Absolutely."
Usher, of course, disagrees. "We've had a successful working relationship with the state of Florida for 25 years. All of a sudden, that has come under attack from some archaeologists."
Gifford, however, points out that he believes the divers' activities are ruining irreplaceable pieces of history on the ocean floor.
"The most important shipwrecks in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, I would say probably 95 percent of them, have already been destroyed by treasure hunters over the last 30 or 40 years," Gifford said.
Who are the real pirates?
The battle has raged for six years since Congress passed its law, everyone fighting for a piece of paradise.
Fisher believes it's all about money. "What they want us to do, or want the salvagers to do, is donate all the treasure to the government."
Causey's response: "The real treasure here is this nation's only living coral reef."
Usher also says that the fight is bigger than the Florida Keys. "They plan on expanding this to 47 other marine parks," he said. "It takes up the entire coastline of the United States."
Nearly everyone involved agrees the National Marine Sanctuary is a national treasure. It's hidden under the waves, it lives in the blue waters and it glows in the sunsets.
But what they don't agree on is: Who are the real pirates here?
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