For three centuries, like the ragged teeth of a giant fish, the submerged reefs off the Florida Keys have been snagging the hapless ships that stray or are driven from their safe course in the Gulf Stream. For hope of treasure or just for cool sport, skin-divers have been prowling these reefs, and today many of the old wrecks have become familiar landmarks. But this June, while looking for the oft-explored wreck of an old British warship, salvage diver Tim Watkins came upon a new, seemingly undisturbed mound of ballast rock. Watkins had found the remains of one of a fleet of Spanish merchantmen swept onto the reefs by a hurricane in 1733.
The 1733 Spanish fleet is known to have carried great riches, but it is also known that the Spaniards returned, dived and recovered much of the treasure. In the past month Watkins and five helpers have removed more than 100 tons of ballast rock, timbers and drifted sand, uncovering a welter of artifacts that the Spaniards left behind: an eight-foot cannon (center, below), human bones and broken bottles, wine jugs (left), block and tackle, pewter cups and brass weights (right, below), gold wedding rings and coins, 60 pounds of silver bullion.
The dig has cost about $4,000. Sale of the silver and gold should cover most of the cost. Until the rest of the haul is appraised Watkins and his team will not know whether they will make a profit or merely escape a loss. This they do know: however big the profit, back on land the federal tax men await, alert as the crew of a privateer, ready to take a share of the Spanish prize.
ART PINDER AND CHARLIE ANDREWS