Florida family seeks ultimate Spanish bounty
The Jolly Roger flying from the bow of the Schmitt family ship is a telling sign of what these modern buccaneers are after: Spanish gold.
Instead of flintlocks and cutlasses, however, the Schmitts use maps and computers and bring lots of patience to bear in their quest for booty.
The gold they seek -- and sometimes find -- is on the bottom of the ocean, the bounty of 17th-century Spanish treasure ships that sank in storms off the coast of Florida.
Their slow, meticulous work often pays off: in June the family found hundreds of gold coins with an estimated value of $1 million. It came from a convoy of 11 Spanish treasure ships that sank in a violent storm off the Florida coast in 1715.
"There's truly no way to describe the emotion of pulling up something that's been under the ocean for 300 years," said Rick Schmitt, the 67-year-old family patriarch.
"It has been an amazing season, one for the record books, for sure," added Rick's son Eric, captain of the family vessel, the "Aarrr Booty."
- Long, hot days -
Eric was on his computer one recent Saturday marking off explored areas on a digital map of the seafloor, and plotting the next area to search.
The work can be monotonous.
Day in, day out between May and September, and when the weather permits, the "Aarrr Booty" sails out to sea, drops anchor and then deploys tubes that move sand on the ocean floor, powered by the ship's propellers.
A diver plunges into the water with a metal detector. If he finds nothing, the vessel moves forward and the operation is repeated.
Eric, his wife Lindsay, sister Hillary, father Rick and mother Lisa take turns doing the chores on board.
"We are not really the average family, families (who) watch movies together and go on picnics and hikes. We go out on the ocean and dive for treasures," said Eric.
"We have a lot of long days on the boat," said Lindsay. "It's hot out here."
And tempers flare at times in the close quarters of the Aarrr Booty.
"Treasure hunting is hard work and there is always tension on every treasure boat," said Rick.
"But when we find something we realize why we are all here and what we are doing and we are very proud of what we are doing," he said.
This season, the family recovered nearly $2 million worth of treasure.
To get to it they've had to pick through a lot of junk on the ocean floor -- beer cans, lead fishing weights, rusted metal.
- Dozens of colonial-era wrecks -
"We've found everything out here from refrigerators to water heaters, bombs..." said Jonah Martinez, skipper of the Capitana, a vessel that belongs to a treasure hunting outfit that goes by the name 1715 Fleet - Queens Jewels LLC.
The Capitana had its moment of glory in July: it found hundreds of coins, some of them quite rare, valued at $4.5 million.
Queens Jewels LLC has the rights to recover treasure from the fleet that went down in 1715 and the Schmitts work for it as a subcontractor.
Anything the family finds, a share goes to Queens Jewels LLC. The state of Florida also gets a 20 percent cut.
Currently, 11 companies have state permits to search for treasure in Florida's coastal waters, the resting place of dozens of colonial-era shipwrecks.
- Archaeologists vs treasure hunters -
The treasure hunting, however, does not sit well with archaeologists, who find little of scientific value in the work of people like the Schmitts.
"Most archaeologists will not have anything to do with treasure hunting," said Corey Malcolm, an archaeologist at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, a Key West institution built around the treasure recovered from Spanish galleons that sank in 1622.
"The archaeologists' position is that the excavations generally are not scientific, the motivation is not to learn, (but) to make money, and the artifacts are not kept together as a collection to be studied later," he said.
The Schmitts say nothing could be further from the truth.
"These artifacts would never be recovered otherwise," said Eric Schmitt, arguing that now they can be studied, photographed, catalogued and published.
"I feel like over the last four years we've actually added to the archaeology community more than probably many archaeologists around the world, especially in marine archaeology," he said.
Besides, he says, the family's not really looking for riches, but adventure.
It finances its treasure hunting from the sale of a pest control business that Rick Schmitt unloaded 16 years ago to realize a boyhood dream.
"I am very fortunate. We have never sold a piece of our treasure yet, we are beginning to really put together a nice collection," he said.
"I consider it to be the legacy that I will be handing down to the family. They've worked for it, it's part of them and I hope we don't have to sell anything until I'm done and then they can fight over it."
© 2015 AFP