Searching for Treasure

By Roger (23 August 2017)

I just got back from a long weekend of treasure hunting. (How often have you heard that, right?) Before you ask, no, we didn’t find the boat, but we did dig up some period-correct artifacts.

Amelia Research and Recovery (link) asked me to come down to Florida and make some new photos for their website and museum. They are based out of Fernadina Beach. The main quest for the weekend was to find the San Miguel, a Spanish treasure boat that sank in a storm, back in 1715. You can read about the treasure fleet on their website.

I’m a shareholder in the company, and they frequently invite shareholders to assist in different company tasks to keep costs at a minimum. It seems searching for treasure is an expensive endeavor.

We toured the company’s new museum before getting under way. There are lots of period-correct artifacts that have been found in this area: coins; emeralds; silver and gold ingots; and a jeweler’s furnace that would likely be on a vessel such as the San Miguel. Nothing yet, however, that can be positively tied to the ship. And they haven’t found the wreckage of the ship and, most importantly,  its main cargo hold. After the museum tour, we discovered a nice rum bar, next door. Just one more perk of the museum tour.

Through the weekend, we stayed on the Polly L, which was built especially for this kind of work. It isn’t the prettiest boat I’ve ever been on, but the accommodations are better than you might suspect, and the food was even better. The boat is a 73’, flat-bottomed vessel, with three legs that extend down to the ocean floor. The boat is lifted out of the water, providing a stable platform for the divers and holds its position at the search site.

The Polly L, on a search site.

The basics of the search are to scan the ocean floor, with a magnetometer, and map the hits. Then, the Polly L goes to the spots; puts down her feet; blows a huge hole in the sand; and the divers go into the hole, with metal detectors. They keep searching an area until they find what set off the magnetometer. It’s frequently just modern trash, like pipes. Then, it’s time to move to the next spot and start again.

Recovering the marker buoy before lowering the fans

The divers move pretty quickly, so we would explore several hits each day. Each time, the skiff would go to the coordinates of the mag hit and drop a buoy. The process of maneuvering the Polly L into a precise location for the divers was interesting. The crew put the fans over the mark and ran them for 20 minutes or so, to move the sand that was covering the hit. Then, they'd dive into the hole with metal detectors.

Dive Station

Gary returning from a dive.

As for the photography end of the long weekend, there are many things to consider when you take your camera gear out joy riding on the water. The ocean environment is very hostile to electronics and nice lenses. Although we drove down to Florida, I didn’t want to bring too much gear. The gear gets to the boat, via a small skiff, so there is a splash danger before you even hit the deck of the Polly L. I have a dry bag large enough to hold my medium camera bag, so I had that covered. I took a GoPro (small and waterproof), my backup D500, and a few lenses.

Some of the crew arriving

I didn’t count on the air conditioner being so good in the cabins (although, I was really grateful it was). The temperature difference of the cabin and outside caused the lenses to fog. I found a secure and covered place to leave my main gear outside, so it was always ready to shoot. Other than the hassle of waiting for your lenses to de-fog, you don't want the camera to be constantly going through cycles of condensation formation and clearing. Nikon has already made too many dollars on my camera repairs. Next time, I’ll have a better setup to keep the gear at the proper temperature and protect it from the humidity of the ocean.

We ran the skiff around the Polly L to make photos underway and, again, once we got to the dive locations. They had a generalized shot list for me, and we improvised from it all weekend. I had full run of the boat and spent much of the day climbing ladders and trying to get some different photos for them.

Our archeologist laid out some of the artifacts from a previous dive that were already tagged and recorded. They are kept in water until he can begin the clean up work in the work area of the museum. The items can be hard to distinguish when they're encrusted with centuries of underwater creatures. As I said, we found some additional artifacts while we were out on the search sites, but they were more of the same – pins and brackets of an old wooden-hulled vessel. They match the time period that the San Miguel went down, but there is nothing to categorically prove they're from the boat.

Artifacts ready to go to the archeologist's workshop for cleaning

Encrusted hull pin from the Colonial Period

I used the GoPro for some video segments and gave it to a diver for some underwater shots. The visibility where they’re diving is next to zero, but that still made for an interesting video clips. We made videos of the Polly L positioning the fans; going up and down on its legs; etc. Now, I just have to edit them all together.

One of the many surprises for me was just how much fun the trip was. I’ve been around boats my whole life as a Navy brat, and my brother is a licensed captain. However, even though I’ve got my own small set of sea stories, this experience was different. I almost felt like Jacques Cousteau, out exploring (except I’m not an oceanographer; wasn’t diving; and can’t speak French, but other than that…).

It was really interesting to be out looking for a ship that you know is out there, somewhere, now buried under the sand, and filled with precious stones, silver, and gold. It was like something you have watched on the History or Discover channel, only you’re a part of the episode. It kinda got to me and made the experience special and fun. I’m looking forward to the next visit.

The Polly L passing Fort Clinch, a Civil War site

Hey, don't forget! It's time, again, for the Kelby Worldwide Photowalk. This year I've signed up to lead (my eighth year!) a walk in Old Town Manassas. The photowalk is free, but you must register (here) to get in on all the fun. The photowalk is on Saturday, October 7th. We'll meet at the Manassas Amtrak Station, at 9 a.m. Hope to see you there.