By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Before the Rio Grande had arrived at its destination near Orange Cay, 50 miles south of Bimini, the mission was already spinning out of control. The problem, according to former crew members, was the man hired by CEL to lead the project. Rick Meyer, a Canadian treasure hound, had shown up in Miami in September 1994 maintaining he'd found a handful of emeralds at Orange Cay -- and what he thought was the wreck of the legendary Santiago El Grande. On the basis of this claim, CEL's 350 investors signed up Meyer to return to the Bahamas and recover the mother lode from the eighteenth-century Spanish galleon. The Santiago El Grande, whose very existence is debated by scholars, is said to have sunk in a 1765 hurricane while hauling one of history's largest cargoes of gold and silver coins from Havana to Spain.
To McManmon, Meyer seemed like a cartoon version of Captain Bligh, a disorganized loudmouth whom crew members contend they once saw trying to read a chart upside down. Meyer had supposedly spotted his famous emeralds while free-diving in deep water. McManmon wondered how: Meyer smoked cigarettes incessantly, had a generous beer gut, and barely knew how to put on his dive gear. Other crew members described their leader as a Walter Mitty type who one day claimed to have been a fighter pilot, the next a submarine captain.
Like most treasure hunts since the Seventies, the Rio Grande expedition used large hoods fitted over the ship's diesel engines to direct the thrust of the propellers downward, methodically digging up the sand and coral at sites where they hoped to find centuries-old swag. But the work kept getting interrupted by hurricanes -- first Erin, then Felix.
When the expeditioners weren't killing time on-shore in Bimini waiting for better weather, they worried at sea. The threat of modern-day pirates was a serious consideration. Some of the men aboard the Rio Grande took to wearing holstered sidearms by day and sleeping with shotguns or AR-15 rifles at night. Good navigation equipment, dive gear, and excavation tools may have been scarce on-board the Rio Grande, but firearms and ammunition weren't. McManmon wondered where the rest of CEL's money was going.
When the expedition was finally able to hover over what they presumed was the Santiago El Grande site, McManmon concluded it had already been "blown" by several other treasure hunters. The team pressed on anyway, bringing in local Bahamian guides and a Canadian seismic consulting firm to map geologic anomalies that might indicate a buried ship's hull.
McManmon began to harbor serious doubts concerning Meyer, and at one point he took a principal CEL investor aside and explained his point of view. Meanwhile Meyer, who had been directing the treasure search from Bimini, suddenly left the Bahamas. Soon after that he was fired by CEL's board of advisors.
In place of Meyer, CEL made McManmon the new on-site manager, responsible for all technical aspects of the hunt. In the weeks that followed, the Rio Grande crew abandoned the Santiago El Grande site and found four other shipwrecks. Despite some tantalizing leads, none yielded treasure.
Which is not to say McManmon came back to Miami empty-handed.
"Ron just walked on-board one day in Fort Lauderdale, and thank God he did," says Peter Scully, director of operations for CEL and a successful Toronto criminal defense lawyer. "He's what everyone admires in an American. He's a can-do, right-away, I'll-look-after-it kind of guy."
In what Scully calls "an endorsement of Ron's personality and character and ability," the attorney shelled out $600,000 for a boat, plus another $225,000 for overhauls and renovation, to make a long-time dream of McManmon's come true. The two became partners in Performance Watersports, Inc.
The dream is to make the Gulf Stream Falcon South Florida's ultimate party boat, a gourmandizing, ecologically sensitive water safari that tries, on each day cruise or overnight voyage from Miami through the Keys, to expose its guests to pursuits as varied and unusual as deep breath-hold diving, big-game fishing from sea kayaks and Jet Skis, reef exploration via bubbleless rebreather devices, and -- as spectators only -- the fine art of shark rodeo.
An animal bereft of fur and scales hangs suspended 60 feet beneath the ocean surface, holding its breath in the blue-black half-light. The stovepipe legs give way to three-foot rubber fins. The spear gun adds two more yards of length. At intervals, the creature makes a muffled croak, a grunt, letting air pass through its vocal cords and into its mouth.
To wait in the woods with a weapon leads one slowly toward the heart of enervation. To wait in this place is the grist of madness. There is no cover from which to shoot, no respite from the cold. The eyes scan the edge of night 30 yards out, and ancient instincts whisper at what might be coming up fast from behind. The hunter cannot turn and look. Absolute stillness is required. Adrift in the monster Gulf Stream current, the very cells cry out for oxygen, and the will says: Wait.
And then one time in a hundred it comes. Out of a fold in the purple curtain a shape takes form, announced by panicked baitfish. The form becomes a giant tuna, or wahoo, or migrating kingfish. Curious -- perhaps it has heard a croaking sound -- it breaks off from the passing school and approaches. At ten yards the fish hesitates, then begins to circle. Halfway along in the fish's second orbit the spear pierces the flesh beneath the dorsal fin and the blue world explodes. The fish sounds. The spear goes with him, attached to a float line. The line drags the first of two buoys down from the surface. The buoy passes the hunter on his way up for air.