June 26, 2008

Thinking It a Beer Can, Diver Finds Gold

By Marc Caputo, The Miami Herald

Jun. 26--KEY WEST -- Just before Mike DeMar realized he found a rare and priceless treasure, he thought the 385-year-old gold chalice from a wrecked Spanish fleet was a far more common item.

"I thought I was digging a beer can that the metal detector hit," said the 20-year-old treasure diver, who happened upon the object just after 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. 'I couldn't see any gold until I pulled it out. The sediment cleared away. The gold started to shine. Time just stopped down there under water. I thought: 'Oh my God.' "

The chalice -- more than a pound of nearly pure gold -- came to rest around the spot when the Santa Margarita sank in the Sept. 6, 1622, hurricane about 30 miles off Key West in about 20 feet of water.

Intricately carved with elegant scrolling handles, the chalice has only one peer: a handled cup salvaged in 1973 off the nearby Nuestra Senora de Atocha, the Margarita's sister ship. In all, at least eight vessels in the 28-ship fleet sank with so much treasure that it helped bankrupt the Spanish empire. The Atocha has yielded so much gold, silver and gems salvaged over the past 30 years that it accounts for the largest Spanish treasure-find in the world.


Finding the Atocha wreck was an obsession of the late Mel Fisher and his team of divers. And as the Tuesday morning find showed, there's more to be had.

DeMar dives for Blue Water Ventures, a subcontractor with Fisher's salvaging empire that controls the treasure site near the Marquesas Keys. The salvagers hunt for treasure by directing a ship's propeller-wash downward to help clear out sediment on wreck sites that stretch for miles in brightly colored shallows that look like gems themselves. Some of the finds are small, such as a recently found four-inch gold ornament with a toothpick at one end and an earwax scoop at the other.

But that object pales in comparison to the chalice.

Dented on a few sides and encrusted with marine growth, the chalice was carried Wednesday to and from the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in the most understated of fashions: A plastic-lidded measuring container from the grocery store. Don Kincaid, a museum board member and long-time diver and photographer, was enthralled with the find.


"The inevitable question is how much is it worth -- well, it's priceless. How much you got?" Kincaid said laughing.

"When you touch something like this, it's like a time machine. You go back in time. This was 380 years dead until this kid found it. And it was brought back to life," Kincaid said. "Who knows who made it? When they clean it, there's no telling if there's a family crest inside and what it will say. It could have the design of the Last Supper. Who knows? It could be anything. But we know it's a priceless part of our past."

Kincaid should know. He said his life was changed forever when, as a young man, he found a rare gold chain on the Atocha site.

Kincaid points out that the Santa Margarita sank two years after the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

At year's end, the divers and companies will divvy up the treasure, and DeMar will likely get a bonus, though he won't keep the chalice. That's fine with DeMar. A day after his find, DeMar was almost as giddy as when he first held the chalice under the water and showed dive master Chris Rackley.

"We were dancing and screaming under water. I could barely keep the regulator in my mouth," DeMar said. "It's amazing. But it still hasn't sunk in."


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