Dig Deeper.

Finally, after much delay, the final installment of my trip to Florida in June. Finally the real meat of the trip, the reason we had flown across the country and were still hopeful despite the consistently poor weather we’d had throughout the week. Treasure Diving. That’s right, treasure diving. We were in Key West to get a once in a lifetime chance to search for sunken treasure on the ocean floor.

History side note: The treasure we were looking for is from the wreck of the Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank in 1622 leaving tons of the gold, silver coins, emeralds, jewelry, pottery and so much more on the bottom of the ocean floor. After more than 15 years of searching, in 1985 Mel Fisher and his team stumbled upon the “mother lode” bringing up the richest treasure find in the world since the discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1930. Since then they have continued working the area, bringing up more treasure and different artifacts each year.

Earlier in the week we got a sneak peek behinds the scenes at the conservation room above the Mel Fisher Museum, where all the magic of restoration happens. We learned some important details that would be helpful during our hunt beneath the sea, for example, most metals look different after spending years on the bottom of the ocean. Silver turns black, and iron becomes encrusted to the point that you wouldn’t know it’s iron except for the pinging of the metal detector.

Getting to see some of recently restored treasure.

A canon ball in a desalination tank


A sword hilt pulled from the ocean floor.

One exception is gold. Gold stays nice and sparkly and does not attract encrustations. It also does not show up on most metal detectors (although we were told that the ones they are using are so sensitive that they do pick up gold.)

Now as you know from reading my two previous posts, we happened to cross paths with the beginnings of a tropical storm while in Key West. Our first day of diving was rescheduled from the nice coral reefs to the community college lagoon, we barely were able to get out to the Vandenberg, and now our days on the Atocha wreck were in jeopardy. We were saddened to find out Wednesday night, that the winds were holding strong. The crew of the Magruder (the treasure salvaging ship) were hiding out in the safety of the Marquesas, and were not going to be able to get out and set up the next day. Still hopeful, we clung to our new motto, modeled off of Mel Fisher’s classic line, “Today’s the day”, and told each other, it would be okay, “tomorrow’s the day!” Luckily it was! We were able to pack up and head out late Friday morning, despite the still high seas.

After the ride out on the small speed boat “Lucky Dog” we got to the Magruder to hear annoyed and angry voices coming over the radio. The ship had gotten back to the coordinates in the morning and began mooring off only to find that sometime since they were last at the site another large ship (probably a coast guard cutter), had come through and severed the mooring line from one of the anchors.

Quick side note: the Margruder uses three mooring points, one of the bow and two off the stern, so that it stays exactly in one place. This allows the mailboxes to work and they can precisely adjust their searching pattern by letting out and pulling in a certain amount of line on each of the anchors, slowly moving the ship around the ocean. Each anchor weighed several tons!

The crew had spent the morning pulling out the gps coordinates, relocating the anchor, re-attaching the mooring line and tying off. It made it even more difficult that they had to do it in rough seas. The next step was another doozy. To get on the Magruder we had to transfer from the fiberglass speedboat, to the aluminum work boat, then leap up onto the Magruder. This can be dangerous in calm seas, and we were not in calm seas. We all made it safely, with the only catastrophe being that a cleat was pulled off the small boat as they tried to tie off to the Magruder. The crew transferred all of our gear and it was time to get ready for treasure hunting.

The mailboxes, before being lowered over the prop.

We left a trail of sand throughout the day as the current pushed it away from the boat.

The first step was lowering the mailboxes and blowing the first hole. The mailboxes are these large pipes that lower off the back of the boat covering the props. The propellers are then turned on to full and the prop wash is sent gushing down into the ocean floor blowing all the layers of sand and sediment away leaving a 5-6′ hole down to the coral hard seabed. Once the current has cleared the area enough to be able to go down and start searching.

While we were waiting, we got to mingle with the crew and see some of the the artifacts they had found earlier in the week. As soon as the first hole was cleared, it was go time.

For the ascent the best option was to put your fins on your arms so they wouldn’t be in the way climbing the ladder.

Treasure diving is not for the faint of heart. Luckily we started with a pretty calm current, but by the end of the day the current was RIPPING. To be successful you couldn’t spare any time. After giant striding into the ocean we just continued straight down, quickly looking for the line that directs you to the hole. The visibility was about 2ft at best, and the current is pulling you in the opposite direction. At the end of the dive it was the opposite. In order to not be swept away, and to be able to actually get out of the water, we removed our fins in the bottom of the hole (no current) then ascended hand over hand on the line to the ladder. The waves were pushing the boat side to side, so the ladder was plunging in and out of the water. Once you grabbed hold you had to hold on for dear life as you would be pulled out of the water then pushed back in until you were safe back up on the deck of the ship. It was rather exhilarating!

As I mentioned, visibility was pretty awesome. The big plus was that there was no current once down in the hole.Unfortunately my very old small canon camera that I had not used in about a year and half flooded after jumping off the boat. However my buddy Kendra had her’s and got some great pictures that really show what it was like down there.

Our job was to dig around in the “solution” holes, looking mostly for something shiny, like gold or for pottery and other artifacts that are not picked up by the metal detector. The whole time you’re down there searching thinking, what if there is something in this hole, then you move to the next and think, what if there is something in this hole, etc etc, so on and so forth.

This is what we were searching in. A solution hole is basically a hole in the hard coral formation of the seabed that is filled with shells and sand, and maybe, just maybe treasure!

In the midst of the hunt!

Every now and then a ray would swim by, or I’d look up to see a huge fish just chilling on the edge of the hole and I’d be reminded that we were out in the middle of the ocean.

One of the crew, finishing up his pattern with the metal detector.

It was a crazy day, and unfortunately it was cut a little short as the winds picked back up in the afternoon so we only got in four short treasure dives. Despite that we all had a blast, and while we didn’t come away with anything sparkly, we all found some pretty awesome shells, coral pieces, sand dollars and these awesome large sand-dollar like pieces that I learned are called Sea Biscuits. After the dives, we were able to look at the large map of the search area, and see the four holes we dug.

This large map, is still only a portion of the whole search area!

A closer view, the four holes we dug are near the center, numbers 7671-7674.

Victorious on the Vandenberg.

Let me rewind a little before I jump into the next part of my recent Florida vacation. Last December I visited Key West for the first time, and we were supposed to dive the Vandenberg, but the dive was cancelled due to strong winds and high seas (does anyone else see a pattern here?). After returning with similar weather, I was so bummed when it looked like the dive was going to be scrapped…again. Waking up Wednesday morning knowing, that despite the rough seas, we were headed out to finally dive the Vandenberg!

The boat ride out was rough, no doubt about it. As I am prone to sea sickness I prepared, but even that wasn’t enough. I made it just about to the dive site, before having to lean over the side and dry heave. *sigh*

But we were there! Time to dive the Vandenberg. The boat tied off to the mooring buoy, dropped a line at about 15′ off the stern of the boat so that we could giant stride off the side of the boat and descend from the stern, traveling to the mooring under the water, vs battling the big waves and strong current. Seriously, this was the best idea ever. It made the descent and ascent so much easier.

Once off the boat (and feeling much better underwater, as usual). We descended into the rich blue water as the shipwreck slowly materialized below us. The current was ripping, but once we hit the wreck, we could hide in the lee of the current, blocked by the massive size of the Vandenberg. Unfortunately due to the turbulent water the viz was not as awesome as we had hoped, but still good, in the 30-40ft range. I had a blast with the 8mm fisheye lens on the wreck and my good buddy Kendra often made a perfect model. Sadly there were not as many fish on the wreck as I had hoped, we saw several large barracuda and a small school of another fish I didn’t know, but that was about it. Possibly the weather and current played a roll in the scarcity of life on the wreck.

While it was easy to jump off the ship, getting back on after each dive was “interesting”. It was a game of quickly move forward and hand the DM my camera, back off onto the down-line and remove fins. Shove arms through fin straps and move forward on the line to the ladder. Wait for a lull in the waves and grab ladder, then hang on for dear life as it bucked beneath you like a mechanical bull at a bad country bar. While fighting the ladder, attempt to hook feet into the first rung, also… becareful of the even larger rogue wave that causes you to face plant into the ladder. Once you get your feet in, scurry up as quickly as possible, sit down on the bench, remove gear. Breathe. Needless to say, we had a few bruises on the legs after this day.

Enjoy the photos! Next up… the meat of our vacation: The ATOCHA!

Vacation Time!

As per usual, my blog posts are late in coming, but better late than never, here we go! In the middle of June I traveled across the country to Key West for a week of relaxing in the warm humid sunshine, diving and treasure. Our trip was put on by the Mel Fisher group, with the main reason for the trip being two days of treasure diving along the treasure trails of the wreck of the Atocha. (sound interesting? click here for more info)

The week trip included lodging, reef dives, two days of treasure diving with the salvage crew, bbq, sunset cruise, museum tours and more.

Unfortunately our trip corresponded with the beginning of a big tropical storm, so Kendra and I arrived in Key West to wind, rain and high seas. This meant much of our diving was in jeopardy. (Enter big frown here).

We started the week off with a great welcome BBQ at the house (which by the way was GORGEOUS). We met the other awesome people in our group for the week and got prepped for what was ahead. Sadly, much of the prep meeting included “if” things calm down, and “hopefully” due to the unpredictable winds and the high seas. Right off the bat, our check out dives on some of the reefs off Key West was cancelled. Needing to get a check out dive in, they moved us over to the Florida Keys Community College Lagoon.

Tuesday morning we all geared up at the lagoon, which it turned out is pretty much like diving in California, only the water is warm. Green water, with a very silty bottom and poor visibility, the lagoon was fairly boring most of the time, but did offer me really good photo practice, attempting to remove backscatter from my shots with good strobe placement. Placed throughout the lagoon were different objects like a boat, a taxi, bicycle and barrels. The highlight of the dives, and in my opinion something that made the reef dive cancellation not a big bummer, was that they have several actual beams from the Atocha in the lagoon. It was pretty awesome to see and touch 400 year old wooden beams from a shipwreck that has yielded millions of dollors of treasure over the last 30 years.

After the lagoon dives, the rest of the day was open, so Kendra and I spent it wandering Key West, and well…. eating and drinking. As it turned out throughout the week we had quite alot of down time, and wandering the town helped fill it up. It was raining like crazy on the drive home and kept up through most of the afternoon. So much so, that streets around Key West were flooding. We discovered a couple pluses to the rain were, cooler weather and less people out and about to deal with!

Throughout the day our fingers were crossed for better weather on Wednesday, our day for the optional Vandenberg dives. The seas had been continually bad throughout the day but looked to be dropping. At the beginning of the evening we finally got some good news, the trusty dive operator Captains Corner was braving the 5′ seas and heading out to the Vandy in the morning!

Practicing back-scatter free portraits during the lagoon dive in 5-10ft viz!

Our tour of the lagoon included the many exciting sites, such as this bicycle, a boat, a taxi, some barrels and of course the Atocha ship beams

One of the few marine life sightings in the lagoon, I found this lobster chilling along the wall on our way back to the dock.

Part of the lagoon had an aeriator running along the bottom which made for a cool photo as the air bubbles rose up to the surface.