By Michael E. Miller
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Black fists of cloud blocked off the sun. The wind shredded the water's surface into whitecaps and 15-foot waves. With its three masts snapped and rudder in pieces, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha was relentlessly knocked around by the hurricane blasting in from the northwest. Screams of the ship's 265 passengers and crew were soundless against the raging weather.
Only two days earlier, the 20-cannon Spanish galleon had sailed from Havana, part of a 28-ship fleet aimed at Seville. The cargo hold was stuffed with precious treasure, the fuel to keep King Philip IV marching across Europe. Now, on September 6, 1622, the wind shoved the galleon above the waves, spiking the keel against a nearby coral reef.
The galleon was quickly gone, sealed away under the water near the Dry Tortugas. As the centuries flipped by, thousands of others would join it, the victims of coral reefs, pirates, and tricky weather. Rumors of riches onboard kept the ships' names alive. When modern scuba equipment made retrieval possible in the 1950s, adventurers went looking. A treasure salvage industry was born.
In the 1960s Key West became a holding pen for people drawn to the hunt, from adrenaline junkies to criminal types smelling quick money. Salvage presented the ultimate challenge: the hunter pitted opposite his competitors, nature, and even the big obliterating hole of history itself. The stakes didn't lend themselves to subtleties; treasure hunters became known for smashing natural habitats and historic ships, providing constant headaches for environmentalists and archaeologists.
A charismatic California chicken farmer moved to Key West in the 1970s with treasure on his mind. The Atocha was his target. Running on a threadbare budget, Mel Fisher spent a decade looking for the ship, every day repeating his trademark mantra: "Today is the day." Occasionally the diver would unearth traces of a wreck — silver coins, gold bars, cannon — and despite seeing his son and daughter-in-law killed in a boating accident while searching, Fisher hung in. In 1985, his team discovered a significant stash from the Atocha's hold — 127,000 silver coins, 900 silver bars, and 250 pounds of gold. The estimated value: $400 million. Fisher became a worldwide celebrity thanks to TV specials and National Geographic spreads.
But as much as the Fisher find embodied every treasure hunter's hope, it also set the tone for the future. First, Fisher had to legally arm-wrestle the State of Florida for ownership, then drum up investors to execute the expensive salvage operation. He also stretched fact into fiction: While on his deathbed in 1998, Fisher admitted to selling counterfeit coins in his gift shop.
Today's salvage industry still attracts an outlaw element looking to cash in on the old magic, but the process has been sanitized by protocols. Contested claims that once might have been settled with barroom punches are now fought by lawyers. When a treasure hunter makes a valuable discovery, he is now required to file an admiralty action in U.S. federal court. This process opens a window for competitors — other salvage outfits or foreign governments — to argue that they have a right to the goods.
Even if a treasure hunter is granted title, excavations often require millions. The largest player in the game, Tampa-based Odyssey Marine Exploration, is a corporation traded on the NASDAQ. Even the remnants of Mel Fisher's operation — today called Motivation Inc. and run by his son, Kim — are dependent on investors.
Although salvagers in Key West continue to pick over old shipwrecks and pull out small finds, there hasn't been a major discovery in 30 years.
That is, until Miscovich and Elchlepp began pulling green stones from the sea.
Miscovich was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, a small town west of Pittsburgh best known for Rolling Rock beer. His mother was a teacher; his father worked in a steel mill.
As a kid, Miscovich bought baseball-card packs in bulk to find a single Roberto Clemente card. He'd stop at stores all over town, cashing pocket change for old pennies, fingers crossed for rare coins from the 1920s.
At 17, his collecting impulse was rerouted into real estate. Miscovich used cash from caddying to buy a dilapidated five-unit rental. His parents cosigned. After slapping on some improvements, he flipped the building, pocketing enough profit for a new Trans-Am.
He earned a bachelor of science degree from St. Vincent College, then went to medical school at the American University of the Caribbean in St. Maarten, graduating in 1984. But Miscovich never practiced medicine. More money was waiting in real estate.
"From the time I was in my early 20s to 2009, I was a millionaire on paper," he says now, estimating that he did about 400 deals around the Latrobe area.
Still a bachelor in the late '90s, Miscovich hung around VFW lodges and became a volunteer firefighter. Another social outlet was a local scuba club. He joined but didn't find much of interest on the bottom of local lakes. Scuba friends told him about diving shipwrecks. The idea of undiscovered historical finds littering the ocean floor was enough to hook his imagination.
Soon, he decided to put money into treasure salvage. For his first investment, he was sweet-talked into fronting $25,000 for a dive outfit in West Palm Beach, only to find out the divers never even took the boat out. Instead of abandoning the pursuit, he decided to invest with other, reputable outfits, including Mel Fisher's Motivation Inc.