SPANISH TREASURE BONANZA...THE 1997 RECOVERY

  By Bob “Frogfoot” Weller


  “John how’s your heart?”  John Curiale had just come up from the bottom and was hanging over the stern of the 23-foot salvage boat Discovery.  Handing up his metal detector and pushing the mask back on his forehead, he gave his smiling salvage partner kneeling over the stern a quizzical look.  “I guess it’s OK, why?”  Steve Hancock helped lift John’s diving gear aboard, then helped pull his partner out of the water.  He hadn’t done that before, so John knew something unusual was up.  As soon as he was in the boat he understood, and even with a wet suit on...a shiver went up and down his spine.
   Spread out on Steve’s wet suit was an assortment of gold rings--three of them with a large emerald--several gold chains, one with a large medallion hanging on the end, a cold cup, two gold toothpicks...he couldn’t believe his eyes!  He started shouting, and I guess Steve did a bit of shouting himself!  They were a hundred yards offshore from a deserted beach, so no one heard them or they would have thought these two treasure salvagers had flipped their lids.  IN fact, they shouted all the way back to Sembler’s Marina in Sebastian where they docked their boat.  On the phone they tried to relay the news as calmly as possible to their investor, but Scott Nierling caught the fever and was on his way to Sebastian to help celebrate.  It was the greatest Spanish shipwreck treasure discovery of 1997.

   Along the Florida east coast, all salvors working the various 1715 Spanish treasure galleons between Ft. Pierce and Sebastian are constantly aware of the “scatter pattern” of the various wreck sites.  To date, six of the eleven sites of the wrecked galleons have been located, and their ballast piles have produced some fantastic recoveries over the past 37 years.  Each salvor realizes that the passengers’ baggage contained great treasure, not so much in coins like the ship’s manifest, but in worked gold and silver artifacts and jewelry.  Passengers’ baggage was carried by the current and waves northward from the wreck sites for miles, tumbling along the bottom or washing in and out from the beach until finally hanging up on a reef, where it came apart.  As the treasure in the baggage settled to the bottom it found a convenient hole, crevice, or reef ledge to settle in.


Lucky boat! Steve Hancock's Discoveries, A 23-FOOT TUNNELDRIVE CRAFT, sure has lived up to its name. Shown here at its berth at Sembler's Marina in Sebastian.
Photo by: Steve Hancock.

  That happened 282 years ago, and in most cases, ships’ artifacts, such as iron, have long been covered with coral encrustation and become a part of the local scenery.  But gold...gold is forever.  It remains as glittering yellow as the day the galleon sank in 1715.  It’s breathtaking when you first find gold on the bottom of the ocean, even more breathtaking when there are gorgeous deep-green emeralds set in some of the gold.  Finding gold is the end of the rainbow, and the rainbow often takes several years to show up.  Frustration, perseverance, and some basic treasure hunting instinct are involved.  So the 1997 treasure recovery for Steve Hancock began quite a few years ago.
   Steve first began his treasure hunt along the beaches opposite the 1715 Spanish wreck sites.  It was the beginning of a dream for sunken treasure, swing a metal detector at the edge of the water of back behind the sand dune line after a nor’easter, when the beach sand had been stripped away.  He knew where the 1715 wreck sites were located, and he covered these areas daily, trudging through loose sand under a hot sun for hours at a time.  Pretty soon you’ve paid your dues.  Steve found treasure—more than most—including gold and silver coins, an assortment of silver buckles, and a few gold rings, one with a large emerald.

     Along the way he got to know the various salvage divers working offshore. 
He saw the results when the salvors turned in their recoveries, and it fueled the desire in Steve to become his “own” salvor.  Most of the salvors knew Steve, or knew that he had been recovering beach treasure.  It was the summer of 1992 when one of the salvors, Stephen Shouppe, invited Hancock to join his diving team.
    Diving season on the 1715 fleet begins in late May, or early June, due to underwater visibility—or easterly winds that roll some good size waves across the inshore reefs.  Shouppe had a large salvage boat Tequesta, a Caribbean blue in color and as slow as molasses in January.  As the other salvage boats docket at Sembler’s Marina in Sebastian headed out to the treasure sites, Tequesta remained tied to the dock.  Shouppe had a video promotional commitment that had taken longer than he had anticipated, and as the days passed his diving team—including Steve Hancock—was getting antsy.  Finally, on July 30, the video was completed and Tequesta headed out to the wreck sites. 
    It was Steve Hancock’s first year for salvaging “on site”, and it was a major lead ahead in his dream of sunken treasure.  As the Tequesta crawled southward, Shouppe explained that he would not be working the “Cannon Pile Wreck”.  He had been working this particular site for the past three years and hadn’t found a great amount of artifacts; an ax head, lead musket balls, cannon balls and a bar shot.  There were seven six-foot cannons lying on the ballast pile or around it.  Cannons are numerous along the Treasure Coast, as well as huge galleon anchors, and unless a salvor is prepared to spend several years in preserving them, they are left on the site.  They make good site markers.  Previous
research had indicated that this wreck might have been English and had come ashore in the early 1800s.

  It was a typical “top-to-bottom” visibility day as the Tequesta dropped anchor just northward of the ballast pile.  Someone mentioned it was the anniversary date of the Spanish 1715 fleet sinking.  “Let’s celebrate and bring up some gold!”  Besides Hancock, there were two other divers on Shouppe’s team that day.  Davey Groves and John Anderson had been diving with Shouppe the day before.  Davey suited up alongside Hancock, and with metal detectors turned on they slid over the side.  Before they headed for the bottom Dave suggested, “I’ll go north”, and Steve nodded, “I’ll head south towards the ballast pile.”  John Anderson had no detector that day, so he trailed along the surface, “I’ll chase the sharks away!”


 Lucky Divers!  (L.- R.) Steve Hancock, Investor - Diver Scott Nierling, And John Curiale had a treasure-diving season to remember in 1997. Here they show off their "goodies" aboard Discoveries.

   They settled to the bottom in twelve feet of water and began a methodical sweep of the sand and edge of the reef system.  Hancock worked southward for the better part of half an hour and hadn’t found much more that a few pieces of aluminum beer cans.  The bottom seemed void of anything in the way of ship material.  He surfaced and saw the Tequesta about 100 feet away, nose into a small surface chop that was building as the wind from the east began to pick up.  He had a feeling he was looking in the worn direction, a sort of instinct...unusual for his first salvage dive.  In any event, he turned around and began working his way northward. Soon he passed under the hull of the Tequesta, and now he was following a reef line that came up off the bottom a few feet.  His aluminum beer can “hits” continued, but then he got a hit that was a bit different.  For some unknown reason he pulled out a “pocket buoy”, a small float on the end of a sinker and line, and let the float rise to the surface.  On the surface John Anderson watched as Steve began fanning the sand away.  Soon he had a hole over a foot deep, and in the bottom of the hole was a silver piece-of-eight!  Picking the coin up, he waved the metal detector over the hole and got another hit.  In minutes he had a second silver coin, and then another.  More fanning produced a number of silver pieces-of-eight, and he finned his way to the surface and shouted towards the salvage boat, “The bottom is covered with coins!”
   It didn’t take long before Shouppe was alongside him, and with a metal detector he had a hit a few feet away.  It was a deeper hit, and after fanning sand for several minutes, Shouppe apparently decided to bring the salvage boat over to the area and dust the top layer of sand away.  He had begun to swim back towards the boat, but then something made him turn around and come back to the hole.  Fanning harder he was able to deepen the hole, and suddenly he had the glint of gold!  It was an eight-escudo—a dubloon—about the size of a silver dollar.  The fanning became furious, and it produced more gold coins.  The edge of the hole had gold coins popping out everywhere.  By the time shouppe ran out of air he had 25 gold eight-escudos in a small pile—a samll fortune at $5,000 per coin.  He gathered up the coins and swam back to the boat for another SCUBA tank of air.  Davey Groves had just returned to the boat, and when he saw the gold coins tumble out of Shouppe’s hands, he headed back for the bottom.  Before long Shouppe joined Dave, and together they recovered seven more gold coins.  That ended the anniversary day, and it was cause to celebrate.


 At the end of the rainbow, Steve Hancock found this "Pothole of Gold"! Gold and Emerald Rings, Gold Chains, a Gold Medallion, Gold Toothpicks, Gold Wedding Bands, were among the rewards for his years of perseverance.
Photo by: Scott Nierling.

   The next day found Tequesta anchored over the site much earlier than the day before.  There were more eager divers aboard that day, including Shouppe’s son and father.  The day before, Steve Hancock hadn’t recovered gold, only silver, but on this day he would come up with six large eight-escudos and a Lima two-escudo.  Everyone was picking up silver coins, and before the scatter pattern of treasure ended, they had recovered 400 silver four– and eight-reales.  It was a week that made treasure headlines in the local newspapers and on television.  Before the year was up Shouppe raised three of the cannons.  The remaining four are still there, along with the ballast pile, just inside the first reef and less than 100 yards from shore near the development known as Golden Sands.
    Steve Hancock felt there was a similarity of this site to the other 1715 wreck sites, each scattering their baggage to the north.  And passengers’ baggage always gives up some great treasures.  There was a distinct possibility that this wreck was one of the missing 1715 fleet ships, regardless of the previous research.  It was 1994, and Stephen Shouppe was going to spend the summer in the Philippines.  Steve Hancock and Davey Groves asked Shouppe if they could use the Tequesta anchor boat, a small thirteen foot Boston whaler with a blower attached to the engine, and continue searching northward from the ballast pile.  They would share a percentage with Shouppe of anything that they recovered.  Shouppe agreed and gave them some expense money to boot.
   That summer Steve and Dave worked the reefs tot he north and soon began recovering silver artifacts that presumably belonged to the priest on board the shipwrecked vessel.  They recovered an intact silver vase, a gilded silver cup, parts of a large silver serving tray, a silver knife handle, silver fork, and other broken silver parts.  Shouppe was pleasantly surprised when he returned from the Philippines.
    Then it was the summer of 1997.  The treasure salvage season got off to an early start.  Thanks to El Nino the weather was exceptionally good, and underwater visibility was excellent.  On the site of Nuestra Senora de las Nieves, just south of the Ft. Pierce inlet, the treasure salvage boats were picking up quite a few silver coins, and a few gold jewelry items as well.
    Kane Fisher had managed to locate a small hole filled with 48 gold one– and two-escudo Bogata’ coins on the “Rio Mar Wreck” site of Echeverz’ 1715 Capitana.  But Steve Hancock and John Curiale, Hancock’s new diving partner were coming up with “zip”.
   Scottt Nierling had become their silent partner, financing the diver operation that season with a 23 foot open fisherman type of salvage boat and food and fuel money.  By the end of August the ballast pile was quite a distance to the south, and the two divers felt the scatter pattern had “given out”. 
   “Let’s jump to a new spot.”  Both agreed that the trail they were on hadn’t produced anything.  They searched a bit more to the north and found another reef system.  Dropping anchor they began “bird-dogging” roaming along  the edge of the reef.  After about thirty minutes Steve settled in behind the backside of a reef which had a small sand pocket.  Almost immediately he got a hit on his metal detector and fanned about six inches of sand away to hard bottom.  Suddenly, here was a treasure, a low-carat gold wedding band, obviously old Spanish.  As he did a circle search around the area he hot another hit.  It was a gold flower chain six feet long!
    Then there was another wedding band, then an emerald ring with three large square-cut emeralds.  Now there was gold everywhere!  Two gold toothpicks, another fold flower chain, ten more gold rings, both high-carat and low-carat, including two more rings with large square-cut emeralds were found.  A gold cup, badly crushed, materialized out of the sand, as well as a small dinner bell.  Suddenly Hancock looked down at his hands...they were shaking!  He thought to himself, :That never happened to me before!”  He looked for John and found him fanning away the bottom; he had just recovered a gilded snuff box lid.  Upon closer examination later, they could make out the engraving of two horsemen entering a city...possibly ancient Florence, Italy.
   He gathered up what he had recovered, swam back to the boat, and laid them out on his wet suit.  It was about that time that John came up for air and Steve asked about his heart.  It was the treasure discovery of the year.  Scott Nierling helped them finish up the salvage season, and the three of them had cause for celebration, the kind of excitement that helps make the Treasure Coast come alive again.  The trip to the end of the rainbow was a long one, but well worth the effort.

FROGFOOT



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Reprints of "The Best Of Treasure Quest Magazine" are used with permission from a series of stories in Treasure Quest Magazine
 by Bob "Frogfoot" Weller,  Ernie "Seascribe" Richards and other great modern day treasure hunters.
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