Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Treasure from 1715 fleet found; new stakeholder hopes to bring up more
Wednesday, 16 February 2011 05:39

The Treasure Coast is living up to its moniker.

A gold-rimmed portrait necklace, several gold and silver coins and numerous artifacts from a 1715 Spanish fleet were discovered in about 10 feet of water June 19 just off Indian River Shores in Indian River County.

The find was announced Monday by a firm based in Jupiter Island and Sebastian that also said it has acquired the salvage rights to the sunken ships from the heirs of world-famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher. The company plans to ramp up recovery efforts.

In 1715 an 11-ship fleet set sail from Cuba laden with gold bars, coins, diamonds, emeralds and pearls bound for King Philip V of Spain. The bounty included the dowry for Philip’s new bride, Elisabeth, who refused to consummate their marriage until she received it. The ships sank in a hurricane off the Treasure Coast.

“The ships were blown into the reefs and sank, so they’re relatively close to shore,” said Brent Brisben of Sebastian, who with his father, William Brisben of Jupiter Island, formed Queen’s Jewels.

The company then bought from Fisher’s heirs the U.S. admiralty custodianship of the 1715 fleet and the right to salvage the wrecked ships.

The sites of six of the sunken ships have been found, some in only 20 feet of water. But the bulk of the treasure — including the queen’s jewels, estimated to be worth close to $900 million — still hasn’t been recovered.

Capt. Greg Bounds, whose boat “Gold Hound” made the most recent discovery off the coast of Indian River Shores, is one of about 15 subcontractors who have worked with Mel Fisher Treasure and will continue to work with the Brisbens.

In 2007, Bounds uncovered more than $12.9 million worth of gold chains, pearls, coins, swords and other artifacts from the 400-year-old Santa Margarita site in the Florida Keys.

“I’ve enjoyed working with the Fisher family,” said Bounds, a Fellsmere resident, “and hope to again in the future. But the new owners bring a new energy to the recovery of the 1715 fleet. People don’t realize how much history is lying right off our beaches. It’s exciting to be a part of bringing that history to light.”

But don’t go firing up your fishing boat and starting your own search for buried treasure: Fisher earned the right to salvage the 1715 fleet after a 1982 ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court gave him official admiralty custodianship of the wrecks, a right Bounds compares to registering a claim with the government to pan for gold.

Brisben declined to say how much he and his father paid for the salvage right; but he’s serious about safeguarding his 300-square-mile stake, which extends from the low-tide mark into the ocean.

“People who might be considering ‘pirating’ artifacts from our claim should know that to do so is a federal offense,” Brisben said.

Still, Bounds said, anyone who has serious treasure fever “can hunt on the beach all they want.”

Like all treasure salvaged from state waters, the items discovered June 19 have been sent to the conservation lab at the Mel Fisher Museum in Sebastian for restoration.

“The state gets 20 percent of the haul,” Bounds said, “and gets to pick the pieces it wants first. The rest will be split 50-50 between the owners (the Brisbens) and the subcontractors who found it.”

Brisben admitted he and his father, both experienced real estate developers in Cincinnati, are “neophyte treasure hunters.”

“The treasure is the lure, but it’s the history that’s so fascinating,” he said. “To be involved with the archaeological recovery of these treasures is the adventure of a lifetime and something we couldn’t pass up.”

Ever-improving technology also played a role in the Brisbens’ decision.

“Technology is getting to the point that it will soon be able to lead us to the exact locations of these sunken ships,” Brisben said. “That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of hard, unglamourous grunt work involved. And there are no guarantees we’ll find anything.”

© 2010 TCPalm. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.