Score a half-billion-dollar win for Spain, but treasure hunters vow to keep digging
By Carolina Fernandez - Broward Palm Beach New Times
Sean Fisher lives the exciting yet often uncertain life of a treasure hunter. As vice president of Mel Fisher's Treasures, Fisher knows that his career choice is not always easy.
Treasure hunters spend years scavenging the salty seas in hopes of finding hidden gems that could win them a fortune -- and most of the time, they're very hard to come by.
That's why when a group of Tampa's treasure hunters found 594,000 silver and gold coins worth $500 million in a two-century-old shipwreck, it was more than a big deal. And when they didn't get to keep it, it was an even bigger deal -- for Fisher, his family, his friends in Tampa, and treasure hunters alike.
Fisher, whose family-owned company in Key West is named after his dive-pioneer grandfather, called the situation a "travesty, unjust, and wrong at so many levels."
In May 2007, treasure hunters from Odyssey Marine Exploration of Tampa set out for European waters hoping to find buried riches.
They discovered a piece of history that traced back to 19th-century war tensions between the Spanish and British empires: a shipwreck believed to be Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes off Portugal's Atlantic Coast near the Strait of Gibraltar.
In an 1804 naval battle with the British, theMercedes exploded and sank with what Spanish officials say were 200 passengers aboard. Despite laws that prohibit treasure hunters from excavating foreign military vessels, these treasure hunters took a chance and hauled their big win -- a treasure-trove that weighed 17 tons -- back to the United States.
Spain filed suit in U.S. federal court, arguing that it was not only the country's property but a vital piece of Spanish history. A federal district court judge ruled in 2009 that U.S. courts didn't have jurisdiction and ordered the gold returned to Spain.
On Friday, after a five-year battle, the loot made its way back to Spain on a cargo jet.
Now, treasure hunters have no choice but to face their defeat, but not without a sense of outrage at the injustice they feel. Fisher believes sovereign immunity laws should not apply to a shipwreck that Spain abandoned and forgot about centuries ago.
"If Spain was out there looking for vessels and doing their best to do what we do, then that would be one thing, but they're not doing that," he said. "If it wasn't for companies like [Odyssey] and us, this history, this wealth of knowledge, would sit at the bottom of the ocean and deteriorate."