Byline: Drew Dixon
Nassau Sound is known for its tricky waters to navigate, shark infestations and a remote, narrow pass where the Nassau River meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Doug Pope also sees the sound as a possible site of treasure from the long-lost Spanish galleon San Miguel that wrecked in 1715. Pope is president of Amelia Research & Recovery LLC, based in Fernandina Beach, and his quest to find the San Miguel's loot is the basis of his business.
Pope said the find of a jeweler's furnace in 1993 near Amelia Island is believed to be from the ship that was part of a fleet of about a dozen that went down during a hurricane nearly 300 years ago. The treasure salvaging season for Pope commences in about two weeks, when area waters are most calm.
Curious Britannia, a historical research organization in the United Kingdom, estimates the lost San Miguel treasure with gold and silver bars along with coins, jewels and other valuables to have a value of up to $2 billion. The organization's website, www.aquiziam.com/top-ten-lost-treasures.html, named the San Miguel as potentially one of the most valuable shipwrecks that has yet to be recovered.
"You got to be excited. There's a lot of anticipation this year," Pope said last week. "We've got a little more research leaning toward where the San Miguel is and the value of it."
A retired U.S. Army helicopter pilot who also does commercial work, Pope is confident his business of about 15 employees may be on the verge of a major find, but his current outlook came only after years of struggle, persistence and optimism - a prerequisite in the treasure salvaging business.
Amelia Research & Recovery now has assets valued at $2.3 million. Just to get ready for this treasure hunting season, Pope spent about $85,000 to have his 71-foot vessel, the Polly-L, overhauled at the Clay County Port marina in Green Cove Springs, where the ship is currently moored.
The Polly-L resembles a barge with three large, adjustable pilings that often elevate and lower the hull after the pilings are planted on the ocean floor.
And then there's meeting government regulations.
The permitting process of any treasure salvage operation is complicated. Treasure hunters can't simply throw a bucket over the side of a boat and drag the ocean floor.
Treasure hunters have to submit permit applications to the Florida Department of Environmental Regulation, which has other branch divisions within to review the proposed work. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also is involved in the review process. There also are historical and archaeological regulations that stipulate what's to be done with relics once they're found.
The DEP and federal regulators have signed off on Pope's project. He said the state's willingness to endorse the hunt represents a shift in the government's posture.
"The entire attitude toward the treasure industry has improved," Pope said. "We were just treated like stepchildren before. Now we're treated like business people."
The thawing of relations between the state government and treasure salvagers was evident, Pope said, when Gov. Rick Scott hosted some of the state's most prominent hunters at a reception April 2 at the governor's mansion.
Taffi Fisher-Abt knows about the tension between the government and treasure hunters. As the daughter of the late Mel Fisher, perhaps the most famous treasure hunter of the past half century, Fisher-Abt witnessed and participated in the battles over recovered treasure in addition to disputes over environmental impacts of salvaging .
"The impact of a treasure hunter on the environment is like a mosquito bite on King Kong's butt," Fisher-Abt said. "We are enriching the environment by pulling out a lot of trash that's in the ocean. We find a lot of trash that we don't want to find again so we clean it [the ocean] up. …