An underwater treasure hunt

The seaside playgrounds of the First Coast have more to offer than meets the eye

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By Sarah Sekula, published in Where Traveler

Off the shimmering shores of Amelia Island, underneath layers of the ocean’s floor, priceless amounts of gold and jewels are waiting to be uncovered. Not to mention untold stories of shipwrecks past, the veritable time capsules of the sea.

At least that’s what Capt. Doug Pope, the president and CEO of Amelia Research & Recovery, hopes. Locals know him as a wise, hard-working, if-you-can- dream-it-you-can-do-it type of guy. And he’s been in hot pursuit of those treasures for the past 12 years, scouring the vast waters of the First Coast.

Pope’s story began on a fateful day—July 31, 1715. The San Miguel, a 180-ton Spanish galleon, set sail from Havana along with 10 other ships in the 1715 Plate Fleet. Somewhere along the Florida coast, the magnificent ship came to blows with its worst enemy: not pirates from rivaling European countries, but a violent storm that ravaged nearly all of the ships as they attempted to return to Spain. Historic accounts say “the sea swallowed her.”

Consequently, the San Miguel was last spotted heading north past St. Augustine—without a mast. The ship was gone without a trace; no known survivors. The kicker is: “It was the register ship of the fleet,” Pope explains. “Which meant it had permission to carry valuable cargo and important, wealthy passengers.” Therefore, what likely went down with it was the Queen’s Dowry, full of New World treasures like silver, gold, gemstones, tobacco, exotic spices and indigo.

New-Age Nautical

With all that said, it’s easy to see why one might take a keen interest in tracking down this mighty maritime treasure. These days, though, it’s not accomplished by the old swashbuckling ways, or just ripping things apart without a care.

Instead, it’s much more precise and scientific. That’s partially because of some amazing new technology, coupled with brilliant folks who know how to make it all happen. Likewise, when I meet Capt. Pope on a breezy October afternoon, the first thing he shows me is a framed photo of his $2.3-million baby, the Polly-L.

She’s the type of ship that sets off a wave of flash bulbs when she glides into town. Not because of her looks—the Polly-L is a 71-foot research boat that when anchored is hiked out of the water on heavily greased pilings—but because of her legendary fame. Nonetheless, people are fascinated with what might be one of the finest and most capable vessels ever used in underwater archeology.

Consider this: She can venture 50 to 100 miles from port and stay out for 90 days without returning to land. In fact, the Polly-L has held her own in winds up to 100 mph and raging seas up to 23 feet. Essentially, she is a six-room boat on stilts, and she’s everything that other boats wish they could be.

She makes her home in Amelia Island, where each summer during treasure-hunting season—May to August—she gets quite the workout. It’s a time when seas tend to be calm and Pope’s salty, six-member crew works from sunup to sundown, with no days off for 90 days straight, hoping every day might be the day they hit the mother lode. And, believe it or not, such a strike would not be that far-fetched. Interestingly enough, the statistics are as promising as the shiny Spanish silver dollar, known as a “piece of eight,” that Pope wears around his neck.

Better yet, “Florida has the probability of more Spanish shipwrecks because they all sailed from Havana through the narrow Straits of Florida, which put them practically on our coast during a normal passage,” he says. In other words, Spanish fleets would jam-pack their vessels with South American treasure and round up the galleons in Havana. Then, they’d set sail in a northerly direction, using the Gulf Stream to zip them back toward their homeland. If they ran into dicey weather, however, a disaster at sea was not uncommon.

No Easy Task

The search for shipwrecks is by no means simple. In fact, Pope readily admits it’s the hardest work he has ever done. “If treasure hunting were easy we would send the women and children out to do it, and we would stay in the bar and drink beer all day,” he says jokingly. Which begs the question, what keeps this squinty-eyed, 62-year-old adventurer going?

“Hardheadedness, “ he says. “Tenacity,” his wife, Jann, adds.

Also spurring the captain on is his sidekick, Scott Jensen, an underwater archaeologist who shares the same seafaring passion. Sitting across from Pope in his equipment-rich beach house in Fernandina Beach, Jensen is a great imitation of a pirate if there ever was one. At nearly 7 feet tall, he sports a black bandana with a long, curly ponytail peeking out. A clunky gold-diver’s watch graces his left wrist. Dirt makes its home under each of his fingernails. He’s got four college degrees under his belt, along with a master’s in marine archaeology.

“There’s not too many boys who don’t want to go treasure hunting,” Jensen tells me. “It’s a lifelong dream. Diving to the ocean’s depths and looking for signs from the past is like opening a birthday present. Every time you dive in, you never know what lies in store for you. I find it difficult not to be passionate about it.”

So how does one go about catapulting that dream into a reality? For Pope, it was a simple conversation with a local treasure-tale friend that sparked the interest. That and the fact that he met Mel Fisher, a legendary treasure hunter who tracked down millions of underwater loot in his day. Fisher could, no doubt, inspire the most skeptical of skeptics. So, after years in the cabinet-making business and time spent as a decorated helicopter pilot, serving in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm, Pope asked his wife, “What do you think about us becoming treasure hunters?” To which she responded, quite calmly, “Well, you are smarter than the average bear. You can do anything you put your mind to. So, yes.”

And, together, the captain and his wife have had their eyes on the prize ever since.

Surprise After Surprise

Over the years, more and more clues showed up. In 1975, one of their partners found 22 gold coins at the south end of Amelia Island. Not far off, 11 coins dating from 1531 to the 1540s also turned up. More proof suggested a shipwreck of historical importance could be located off the south end of the island. Not surprisingly, all of the rusted relics were discovered after a major storm. In that regard, “Hurricanes are bad for the general public, but for treasure hunters they are pretty good; they tend to uncover a lot of things,” Jensen says. “During the last hurricane that brushed the coast, the dunes had cut back so far that people were just finding hundreds of coins.”

Pretty good, indeed. Then, in 1989, a gentleman gave Pope 15 silver coins that he found on the beach of nearby Little Talbot Island. “These coins were badly oxidized,” Pope says, “but appeared to be of the 1715 era.” Bingo. That’s the year the San Miguel disappeared.

Likewise, later in 1989, a gentleman from Atlanta found 28 gold coins on the beach. Again, same loca- tion: the south end of Amelia Island. And, in 1991, Pope discovered an artifact that has never been found before, a jeweler’s furnace, a device that’s used to cook out impurities and determine the worth of gold. The valuable piece was excavated from—you guessed it—the southern beaches of the island. And, according to research, this is something you’d only find on a ship of great importance.

New Season

With all of these found artifacts, accompanied by undying gusto, it comes as no surprise that each year when summer rolls around, everyone knows where Capt. Pope will be—out to sea. He’ll pack up his King James Version Bible, family photos, an iPod full of Rolling Stones, Elvis and Jimmy Buffet tunes, a Clive Cussler book or two and his favorite blue jeans. Oh, yes, and beer. He allows himself and the crew members three beers before turning in. He then snoozes about five hours, only to wake at daybreak and start digging, and diving, all over again.

To learn more about Amelia Island’s detailed history, stop by the Amelia Island Museum of History, 233 S. 3rd St., 904-261-7378, www.ameliamuseum.org.