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Brandeis had a dream. She had it again and again. She'd be swimming along
the bottom of the sea and a small hole would appear in the ocean floor.
She would be sucked through it and emerge into a room of gold, where glittering
objects were piled high: mounds of coins, piles of dishes, teetering candelabra
-- treasure in Goonies quantities. In her dream, Brandeis would
find it hard to breathe. She knew the gold was real -- she could touch
and smell it, and knew the color and the roughness and the temperature
of the metal.
And then she'd wake up in her cramped, humid bunk on a boat moored off
the coast of Ecuador, where she'd slept every night for years. Instead
of a shining secret chamber, Brandeis would find herself in darkness,
surrounded by her slumbering dive crew and the outsize, disoriented tropical
insects that would fly below deck and thrash madly to get out.
The only gold anywhere to be seen was a magazine ad featuring a gold BMW
730i. She'd taped it above her bunk to remind her of what she would buy
when she became unbelievably rich, because Brandeis was a treasure hunter,
and she believed that day could be any day. It was as real to her as the
gold in the dream -- even during her waking hours she imagined how the
metal would feel pressed into her palm.
Her dream was twofold: Yes, she wanted to find gold, but she also longed
to become the first woman in the almost exclusively male treasure-salvaging
industry to lead an expedition to uncover a wrecked Spanish galleon. It
was a quest that would take her from her comfortable home in suburban
Hayward to the Bahamas, and then to the tiny Ecuadoran village of Manta,
where the locals would dub her "La Bucanera" -- the buccaneer.
It would lead her to spend a small fortune in pursuit of the Santa
Maria de los Remedios, which sank in 1590 with what was believed to
be $1 billion in treasure. Her quest would ultimately consume seventeen
years of her life, and encompass arrests at gunpoint, scheming rivals,
poisonous sea snakes, crooked diviners, witches, mutinies, parasites,
and obstacles of all sorts -- and that wasn't even the strangest part
of her adventures.
Brandeis never planned on a life at sea. Even moderately long boat voyages
made her miserably sick. Raised in the Hayward hills, she was a tomboy
from the start -- her machinist father treated her like a boy. "He
wanted three sons, I think, and had three daughters," she says.
As the eldest child, it fell to her to learn the family trade, so Brandeis
worked in her father's tool and die shop from the age of six. She carried
a micrometer around in her pocket the way other girls carry lip gloss.
By the time she was old enough to apply for her learner's permit, her
thumb was so badly sliced from the machine shop that the DMV couldn't
get a clean print and refused to let her drive. Her budding career as
a machinist ended during her senior year of high school when a longtime
customer spotted her pulling off her goggles and hat at the end of the
workday, watched her hair fall out from under her cap, and exclaimed,
"Oh my God! You're a girl!"
"That tweaked something in me," Brandeis says. "I said,
'I quit, Dad. If people don't even know that I'm a girl, I can't do this
The next decade was a serendipitous blur. Brandeis dreamed of keeping
horses, so she took the money she saved from her father's shop and bought
some Arabians. She also accepted a job as general manager for a company
that built motorcycle racing frames. In addition to an aptitude for mechanics,
it turned out she had a head for business, so when the owner of the company
died it fell to Brandeis to shut the place down. While selling off her
boss' property, she met a realtor who offered to pay for her to get a
realtor's license if she would manage some properties for him. So she
took the required real-estate courses in addition to studying business
administration at Cal State Hayward and computer programming at Chabot
By 27, Brandeis was en route to full-fledged yuppiedom. She'd married
Kevin Wong, proprietor of a Hayward dive shop, and owned a handful of
rental properties, two homes, and a horse ranch. But the couple had decided
they weren't interested in having kids or climbing any corporate ladder,
so when Kevin idly mentioned he might like to go treasure hunting, Brandeis
took it seriously. The hassles of managing a ranch were already getting
old, and she wanted her husband to pursue his dream, too. Besides, she
reasoned, "I'd only be gone for a year or two."
Somewhere, the winds of fate were playing a tune that sounded a lot like
the theme from Gilligan's Island, the part about the "three-hour
Through Wong's dive-shop excursions, the couple knew a boat owner named
Glenn Miller, who had a charter dive boat equipped for treasure hunting.
The Coral Sea was a $3 million luxury yacht, complete with a helicopter
pad and state-of-the-art electronics. Miller agreed to serve as the expedition's
captain, and even knew of a wreck they could work: Nuestra Señora
de las Maravillas, which sank in the Bahamas in 1656 after being struck
by another ship. She'd been carrying 280 tons of silver, as well as gold
and gems. The best thing was, somebody already knew exactly where she
The bow section of the Maravilla, as they called the ship, was
found in 1972 by Bob Marx, a legendary figure in the salvaging industry.
Marx claims to have found more sunken treasure than anyone in the world
and worked wrecks in 62 countries, and he has written 55 books on shipwreck-related
subjects. He agreed to arrange a sublease for salvage rights to the site
in return for a cut of any recovered treasure. Dick Anderson, a mutual
friend of Marx and Miller who had witnessed the bow's discovery, would
travel with the dive crew to point out the location.
Why didn't Marx go after the Maravilla himself? "In 1973,
the year after I found it," he says, "I had a falling out with
the prime minister of the Bahamas, who was shaking me down for money.
I called him a whole bunch of names in the international press, including
a crook, so I became persona non grata." Besides, he explains, in
the course of his lifetime of treasure hunting he's catalogued more than
eight thousand wreck sites -- he can't work them all.
The expedition seemed like a sure thing, so in 1980 Brandeis sold her
ranch, put her furniture in storage, and moved to Santa Barbara, where
the Coral Sea was docked, to start raising funds for the trip.
She put 45,000 miles on her car in just a few months, pitching her project
to anyone who would listen. Although she was a rookie, Brandeis didn't
have much trouble rounding up investors. "I had a good sell,"
she says. "Bob found the bow, but I was going back to find the main
mother lode cargo section."
She formed a limited partnership of 35 people, each of who put up $10,000
in exchange for 1 percent of the loot. Brandeis sold the idea as a sort
of adventure vacation -- in return for their money, investors could come
along and help with the dive. But her closer, when she encountered someone
reluctant to gamble on a venture run by a 27-year-old woman who'd never
led an expedition, was her promise to forgo a salary and work only for
a cut of the treasure. She was that sure of herself.
In a moment of caution, however, Brandeis bought a backup map from Marx
-- actually a slide photograph of a map from an ancient book of pilot
charts -- in case things went badly with the Maravilla. The map
indicated a different wreck, off the coast of Ecuador.
She sealed the photo in a safety deposit box, expecting never to use it.
GUNS AND EMERALDS
From the start, the voyage to the wreck site was rife with mechanical
failures, bad luck, and power struggles. Brandeis struggled to assert
herself as leader of an all-male crew. She forbade drinking, and was reluctant
to let anyone go ashore for fear they'd fall in love and never come back.
"She was so headstrong, she wanted us all to sign contracts that
if we died during the trip that we would be buried at sea so as to not
hinder the treasure hunt," recalls Zach Miller, Glenn's son, who
worked on the dive crew.
But there were factors Brandeis couldn't control, like engine failures
and flared tempers. Anderson quit midway through, and Miller frequently
threatened to take his boat and go home. En route to the Bahamas, the
entire crew was taken captive at gunpoint by Colombian authorities who
claimed the Coral Sea was smuggling guns to Nicaragua. For seven
days they sat in port, fearing the Colombians might plant something on
the boat as a pretext for seizing it. They were eventually released after
Glenn Miller contacted US newspapers and compared the situation to the
Iranian hostage crisis.
Despite the difficulties, the underwater hunt quickly yielded results.
Not that the treasure resembled the shiny gold of Brandeis' dreams: Silver
had turned black, wood was chewed through by worms, and almost everything
was overgrown with thick white coral. The dive crew learned to look for
signs of human craftsmanship -- anything with a corner or a perfectly
They searched for heavy objects using prop deflectors, or "blasters,"
which direct a powerful column of water toward the sea floor. The divers
would hook fish gaffes into something stable and cling for dear life as
the force of the blasts blew their bodies straight out like flags on a
Once the blasters stopped, it was a mad scramble to gather the artifacts
before the sediment buried them again. Brandeis says she once almost drowned
mid-hunt because she was so reluctant to come up that she ran out of air.
She remembers pulling herself up the anchor chain, sucking desperately
at her regulator and thinking, "I'm dying over this stuff! This is
ridiculous!" But then the glee of finding treasure took over: "I
made it to the surface and ripped off my mask and regulator and then held
up the goodie bag -- I got it, I got it!"
The crew found emeralds, amethysts, pieces of eight, silver that had been
melted into unmarked "finger bars," shards of porcelain, a cannon,
and coral-encrusted blobs they broke open to find corroded remnants of
guns, swords, nails, and other shipboard objects.
But Brandeis wasn't able to deliver what she'd promised investors -- the
main cargo hold. When the Maravilla sank it cracked like an egg,
and the tides scattered its contents for miles. The salvage crew had followed
her trail for a mile and a half when their site lease expired. "Many
people have started where I left off and they've combed the reef for miles
and miles and yeah, they're picking up trinkets all along the way, but
there doesn't seem to be any main section," Brandeis says.
After a year, the crew returned home and the investors were paid off,
although they essentially broke even. Brandeis' share was modest: two
pieces of eight, some pottery fragments, the remnants of a sword, and
an emerald, which she had made into a ring for her mother.
Under the terms of her contract, Brandeis had to give a quarter of the
booty to the Bahamian government, ostensibly for the nation's museum.
But she doubts the less-valuable items were properly preserved. She remembers
spotting many of the coral-encrusted items the government had claimed
wedged onto a broken pallet on a shipping dock, most of them crushed,
and leaking an orange ooze -- clearly not bound for any museum. "That
was a stab in the heart," she says.
Still, Brandeis returned to Hayward as one of the lucky few. She was no
longer a treasure hunter, she was a treasure finder. And she wasn't on
land long before she began itching for a much more difficult task: On
her first trip, Brandeis had simply organized the salvage team. This time
she was determined to find and salvage a wreck of her own. She wanted
to be the first person to see a Spanish galleon since it disappeared four
hundred years ago.
She went back to her safety deposit box and took out the map of Ecuador's
Manta Bay. It was a simple rendering: a coastline with five sharp points
jutting out into the sea, a white scar on the hillside, a small village,
and a dangerous shallow. On it was written these magic words: "Amongst
which rocks was cast away a ship in which was a prodigious treasure."
How could she resist?
This is what we know about the Santa Maria de los Remedios.
The galleon set sail in 1590 as part of a four-ship armada bound from
Callao, Peru, up to the festival of Nombre de Dios in Panama, where merchants
traded goods from the old and new worlds. She was the capitana, or flagship
of the group, and carried the most loot. The riches, of course, were stolen
in the first place, stripped from temples and mines, and typically melted
into wedge-shaped ingots to remove Incan religious affiliations.
The ship's treasure was prodigious, according to the cargo manifest: 12
tons of gold and 174 tons of silver, 176 chests of silver flatware and
ornaments, 7 chests of gold church plate, and 313 "boxes of gifts"
without further description. Passengers included 46 merchants en route
to the fair, who probably carried another million gold ducats combined,
as well as several dozen other travelers with money of their own. In addition
to the declared value of the cargo, Marx figures another 50 percent was
on board as contraband. All told, it would be worth about $1 billion today.
Marx characterizes the Santa Maria de los Remedios as one of the
fifty richest ships ever lost.
According to information Marx culled from Spanish government archives,
the armada set out from Peru in mid-April 1590, and by early May had stopped
at the tiny port town of Manta to resupply and wait out a calm. Because
the Spaniards feared raids by pirates and agents of rival European nations
more than they feared the Ecuadoran natives, the capitana was moored closest
On May 4, a fierce storm arose in the Bay of Manta. The three ships farthest
from shore raised anchor and sailed out to sea, expecting the capitana
to follow. But by the time it was set to sail, the Santa Maria
was trapped. The natural curve of the land cut off her escape from the
south and west, and the storm made it impossible to go north. The only
way out was east, but each tack pushed the galleon closer and closer to
shore. The ship struck bottom, and such a panic ensued that the passengers
crowding into one of the lifeboats sank it with their weight. The other
two lifeboats overturned in the waves. In all, only 23 people survived.
The armada sailed on, the crew thinking that the capitana was somewhere
behind it. Three months later, by the time the ships reached Panama, word
had arrived via land that the ship was lost.
Spain ordered a salvage attempt, but rough seas and contrary winds prevented
the team from making it back to Manta before September. By that time it
was too late. They could run a net between two ships to troll for loose
objects, and recruited the aid of pearl divers who could hold their breath
underwater for long periods, but they only recovered what Brandeis figures
to be about 1 percent of the treasure.
"Three years later, because this was such a rich ship, the king sent
another expedition out to try to find it and they found even less,"
she explains. "They said, 'Everything is lost under the sands --
we can't see anything, we can't find anything, it's all gone. Man will
never see it again.' "
The loss of the Santa Maria de los Remedios was chalked up to the
will of God and the perilous economics of treasure accumulation. The Spaniards
stole it from the Latin Americans. Pirates attempted to steal it from
the Spaniards. And the sea stole it from them all.
There are people who think Margaret Brandeis is trying to steal it, too.
Many marine archaeologists, museum curators, and government agencies regard
treasure hunters as little more than modern-day pirates. Although both
groups essentially want the same thing -- to recover historical artifacts
-- their motives and methods can be very different. "The bad way
to put it is, if you make money from it you're a treasure hunter; if you
don't make money from it you're an archaeologist," Marx says.
The tension is a relatively recent one, because before the invention of
scuba gear in the 1950s, things lost to the sea tended to stay lost. Once
it became possible to breathe underwater for extended periods of time,
a sort of treasure hunting boys' club evolved. The first generation produced
mavericks like Marx and Mel Fisher, credited with finding the world's
richest wreck, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, worth $400
million. "It was more romantic, less structured. The public sentiment
wasn't against finding things that supposedly belonged to someone else,"
says Scott Ellis, a Walnut Creek-based treasure salvor who has worked
with Marx for the last fifteen years.
Their profession was poorly regulated, governed mainly by ancient admiralty
laws that encouraged salvors to rescue capsized vessels and their cargo.
But in 1985, when Mel Fisher found the Atocha, everything changed.
The discovery captured the public's attention, both because of the high-profile
lawsuits it sparked, and because of the many resulting magazine spreads
and television specials showcasing the treasure itself. Brandeis remembers
watching a TV show in which Fisher climbed atop a mountain of silver bars
proclaiming, "The nice thing about this is that it's all mine!"
After the Atocha, and thanks to steadily improving salvage technology,
treasure hunting became an increasingly commercial business, with companies
issuing stock and working year-round on multiple sites. Marine archaeologists
began to worry that profit-driven salvors would care little about protecting
what they found or preserving anyone's cultural heritage. Treasure hunters,
they say, tend to snatch up gold, silver, pewter and precious gems, but
damage or abandon items that could be immensely valuable to academics
"You just have so many artifacts; they're essentially nonrenewable
vestiges of the past. Once you pull that page out of the history book,
it's gone forever," says Daniel Lenihan, an archaeologist with the
National Park Service's Submerged Resources Center.
In general, Lenihan says, archaeologists and governments prefer a slow
approach to salvaging wrecks. They say the technology is developing so
quickly that they'll eventually be able to pinpoint any sunken ship they
like. In the meantime, the wrecks are better off left beneath the sea,
particularly if they're in deep water, where the cold, anaerobic conditions
are excellent for preservation. Simply bringing artifacts up from the
water, archaeologists say, exposes them to air and reactivates their decaying
The academics are especially horrified by treasure hunters who crack open
encrusted objects to see what's inside -- as Brandeis did in the Bahamas
-- or deploy forceful search methods like blasters. "We essentially
lost most of the Spanish maritime history in Florida waters when so much
of that treasure hunting went on in the '60s, '70s, and early '80s,"
Lenihan says. "There were parts of the keys that looked like they
had been carpet-bombed on the bottom by those blasters."
The way universities and governments want it done isn't just slow, it's
expensive. Dr. Donny Hamilton, president of the Institute of Nautical
Archaeology, says a month's worth of salvaging in the field requires a
year's worth of conservation, and that doesn't come cheap. "There's
a truism in archaeology: Any time things get interesting, you have to
stop," he says. "Then you have to start making drawings, taking
photos, doing underwater video, and then take it all out. The documentation
is the time-consuming part of it, and the analysis is going to take ten
times longer." For treasure hunters, he says, "It's easier to
bring up the artifacts, not do analysis, and sell them on eBay or whatever
and recoup your money. The excavation is expensive, and if you throw conservation
on top of it, it's prohibitive."
Treasure hunters do need to turn a buck quickly in order to appease investors,
but they say there's another reason to move fast: The vast majority of
wrecks aren't in deep water; they're close to shore and simply rotting
away. With shallow wrecks, Brandeis points out, port dredging and boat
anchors damage artifacts; pollution hastens decay; and storms and currents
churn up the sea floor and cast items ashore where anyone can pocket them.
And although gold can withstand long periods of exposure to seawater,
other metals such as silver corrode away over time. "There will be
nothing left to find in another couple hundred years," she says.
Archaeologists acknowledge that some decay is inevitable, but, Hamilton
counters, "In almost every case, much more damage happens to the
artifacts after they're brought up."
In 1987, the United States passed the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act, which
gave individual states title to -- and responsibility for -- shipwrecks
found within three miles of their shores. Although the law was intended
to slow down the removal of what the government considers public resources,
Brandeis says all it's done is encouraged frustrated treasure hunters
to do their work on the sly.
They've been aided by improvements in technology that have made treasure
hunters more successful and stealthy, gadgets like metal detectors the
size of airplane wings that can see much deeper into the sand, and remote-controlled
vehicles that can explore the sea floor while the operator moves a joystick
on a boat floating miles away. "Technology is going to make piracy
a lot more feasible," she says. Of course, the more sneakily treasure
hunters behave, the more ammunition academics have to dismiss them as
little more than grave robbers.
One thing both sides can agree on is that they are unlikely ever to collaborate:
Working on a project that leads to artifacts being sold is a de facto
violation of the archaeological code of ethics. "If you do it, you're
essentially going to be blackballed and you'll never get a job at a university,"
For their part, treasure hunters say the Abandoned Shipwrecks Act was
nothing more than a revenue-generating ploy by the government. "They
didn't do it because they love archaeology, they did it because there's
gold down there," Brandeis gripes. "The marine archaeologists
are sitting back in their offices going, 'Oh boy, we won one over on the
treasure hunters.' Oh yeah? Do you have any more than you had before?
No. Do you know about the expeditions that are going out now? No. So what
did you really win? All you did was force the people who really find the
shipwrecks to not talk to you anymore."
CLAY, SLIME, AND SILT
Brandeis began her negotiations with the Ecuadoran government in the early
1980s, before the discovery of the Atocha, but it was by no means
smooth sailing. Unlike in the Bahamas, where the culture was very similar
to that of the United States, Ecuador's complex bureaucracy was totally
new to Brandeis. Her first four years there were spent entirely on land,
making friends with influential people, learning Spanish, and negotiating
with the five branches of the government she needed to approve her project.
"Going to Ecuador was like going to another planet," she recalls.
It was a planet not entirely comfortable with American businesswomen,
she says. Initially, Brandeis was made to sit in the hall during negotiations
carried on by one of her male colleagues. Later, she was allowed into
the office but was expected to keep silent unless addressed. She recalls
an Ecuadoran navy admiral who, midway through what Brandeis believed to
be a business dinner, stuck his hand up her skirt and down her pantyhose.
Although she says she was frequently shaken down for bribes, she says
she never paid, because she didn't have the cash. Instead, she would promise
a cut of the treasure.
Brandeis also needed a boat, and ended up sinking $80,000 into a used
vessel named Hooker's Holiday. The Hooker, built in the
mid-1950s, was hardly up to the Coral Sea's luxurious standards.
"You could take a hammer and knock a hole right through the deck
if you wanted," says Zach Miller, who signed on as the ship's captain.
This time, instead of inviting investors along, Brandeis hired a professional
dive crew accustomed to working oil pipelines in the North Sea. This was
fortunate, as the diving proved exponentially more difficult. "The
sea bottom in the Bahamas was beautiful white sand as far as you could
see," Brandeis says. "In Ecuador, it's clay, slime, dirt --
a snotty kind of bottom that turns into a cloud of mist and dust as soon
as you try to dig into it." Worse, she believed the wreck was buried
under as much as thirty feet of sediment. Some layers were fine silt,
but the crew often hit dense sediment from El Niño years, when
the warming of the ocean caused sea life to die off and then harden into
a gruesome crust that had to be hacked through with crowbars and knives.
The crew also used high-pressure water jets and air lifts to create holes
into which divers would be lowered headfirst. Each ten-foot diameter shaft
extended thirty feet below the sea floor for a total depth of ninety feet,
leaving the divers in almost complete darkness. From the walls of the
blast tunnels protruded poisonous sea snakes, and the water was filled
with clouds of tiny stinging creatures. The divers constantly worried
Even on board, life was unpleasant. People were constantly getting sick
from the water and food, and Brandeis had to administer poison to her
crew once a month to kill off parasites in their guts. She worried about
pirates, and hired a security crew to patrol the boat while the crew slept.
"What really keeps the adrenaline going during all of this is you
could die at any moment," she says. "Something in the water
is going to bite you, or something on land is going to kill you."
The going was never easy -- the same environmental factors that foiled
the Spanish king's salvage efforts also confounded Brandeis' crew. The
Bay of Manta has a four-knot current and five rivers feeding a steady
stream of silt into the bay -- any object underwater for four hundred
years would obviously have shifted or been deeply buried. Over time the
shoreline had also eroded, which meant Brandeis couldn't be sure the points
on her map corresponded with the current coastline, which was crumbling
before her very eyes.
The map, it turned out, had other drawbacks. Brandeis hadn't known early
on that the definition of terms such as "league" had changed
over time, nor that Spanish treasure maps were often deliberately deceptive,
drawn one degree off in order to confuse pirates. Over and over, the crew
dug their thirty-foot holes and found nothing.
Salvage technology, much of it borrowed from the oil industry, had improved
since Brandeis' first expedition -- but she was unable to take advantage
of most of it. Since the wreck was so deeply buried, side-scan sonar,
which can sense the profile of a ship sticking out of the mud, was useless
to her. Nothing can detect wood, and handheld metal detectors, which could
find gold or silver, had a penetration depth of only about a foot, making
them useless in finding a deeply buried wreck. Her only tool left was
the magnetometer, an iron-detecting device the crew would drag behind
the boat as they trolled the sea in meticulous sweeps. "We would
take a month and run the boat down one navigation line, make a big loop,
turn around, and come back," Brandeis recalls. "It was tedious
If it seems difficult to find a 125-foot galleon in a bay that measures
anywhere from three to fifteen miles across, consider how much harder
it is to search only for the iron objects that were on board. The largest
would have been the cannon, five or six feet long. But the hits the crew
did get with the magnetometer generally turned out to be iron pockets
in the natural rock formations, broken anchors, refrigerators, or car
Despite these disappointments, Brandeis sats that what kept her and her
investors hooked was that the divers began returning with shards of Spanish
pottery, distinctive from the local variety because of its thickness and
reddish color. Finding pottery is considered a good sign that a wreck
is nearby. Since it's lighter than metal, it tends to get carried farther
from the wreck site than other artifacts. Brandeis felt she was on the
In accordance with her permits, Brandeis says she handed the pottery over
to the Port Captain of Manta, who sent it on to the Central Bank Museum
for division. She was supposed to be allowed to keep half of what she
found. But to her outrage, she says Ecuador's Cultural Heritage Institute
announced it had discovered problems with the contract, and that it intended
to keep the entire haul.
Things were about to go very wrong for Brandeis.
In its infancy, treasure hunting was based on a simple rule: finders keepers.
But the political tide has shifted against salvors. Governments are beginning
to apply to underwater objects the same protections given to historic
objects on land. "You would never consider even asking a federal
or state land managing agency to allow someone to collect historic artifacts
from public property; you'd be turned down in an eyeblink. Why should
that be different underwater?" Lenihan asks.
Two fairly recent developments bode poorly for treasure seekers. In 1998,
Spain filed a landmark case asserting its ownership of two Spanish warships
discovered off the coast of Virginia by an American salvor. A federal
appeals court ruled in Spain's favor, and though the treasure hunter had
a permit from Virginia, he hasn't been allowed to claim any profits from
the wreck. The case set a radical precedent for once-powerful maritime
states such as Portugal, the Netherlands, France, and England to reclaim
ships lost in foreign waters as their national property.
Then, in 2001, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural
Organization approved a treaty that would require governments to protect
any nonmilitary ships more than a century old that fall within two hundred
miles of their coastlines. The treaty needs the ratification of twenty
member nations before it becomes law; the United States hasn't yet signed.
Still, it's more bad news for the salvage industry.
In the meantime, many archaeologists think treasure hunters should be
satisfied with simply finding the wreck, then letting authorities handle
the salvage effort. They point out that the hunters can still recoup their
investment costs by selling off movie rights or signing book deals. Brandeis
believes professional archaeologists should be invited onboard to do drawings,
take measurements, lead the cleaning and preservation, but she balks at
letting them keep everything. "You should get something for taking
all the risk, putting up the money, doing all the work, getting all the
permits," she says. "They want to say, 'No, 100 percent of it
has to go into a museum.' Well, why can't half of it go into a museum?"
It's a common question among treasure hunters. After all, as Scott Ellis
points out, museums are notorious for having so many duplicates of some
artifacts that they can't display them all. "If you find 20,000 porcelain
dinner plates from the same era, why shouldn't you be able to sell some
of those to recoup some of your costs?" he asks. "How many place
settings of Ming dynasty stuff do you need?"
"Why can't I keep just a few eagle feathers?" Lenihan responds
drily. "Why don't you walk into the Mesa Verde and try to explain
to the public that there's thousands of those Anasazi pots and I want
to have one for my mantel shelf?" And while he agrees it's not ideal
to have treasure sit in a museum basement, he's more worried about it
sitting in a private individual's basement where it would be out of the
public reach forever. These artifacts, he says, are often treated as "trophies
which kind of migrate from their mantel to the garage and then to the
But treasure hunters say overworked and understaffed government agencies
are not necessarily better caretakers of ancient artifacts; they claim
things still get lost, destroyed, or forgotten about. Ellis likens it
to the end of Indiana Jones, when Indy, having survived innumerable
dangers, finally finds the Ark of the Covenant and turns it over to the
authorities. "He found it and gave it to them and what did they do?
They put it in a crate. The camera pulls away and there's the Ark in a
crate amongst other crates, and it's probably going to sit there for eternity,"
Ellis says indignantly. "That's what museums are like."
LIVING ON BEANS
After her scuffle with the Ecuadoran government over the pottery, Brandeis
kept digging. But it soon became evident the pottery trail wasn't leading
to the mother lode. In fact, it looked like she might find nothing at
all. "She's very good at what she does, but she was kind of shoveling
shit against the tide," Marx says.
The odds were against her in many ways. The coastline no longer resembled
the one on her map; there was little on the wreck a magnetometer would
catch; and the Ecuadoran government kept changing administrations, complicating
her negotiations. But Brandeis played a good game, Marx says. "She
only broke one rule: I told her we should have two targets, so if you
fail with one we have another," he says. "But she was so obsessed.
She said, 'I dream about it.' "
Indeed, Brandeis refused to give up, as the 1980s turned into the 1990s.
She began trying some unusual search methods. She paid for satellite photos
the seller claimed showed concentrations of gold chlorides in the water.
That was a bust. She hired as a consultant a guy who claimed he'd invented
a dowsing device that could lead to buried gold. Another bust. She let
three psychics live on the ship and tell them where to dig. Yet another
bust. She began grasping at more spiritual solutions -- reading books
by Deepak Chopra, consulting fortune-tellers who reassured her she'd find
the treasure, and listening to the three Chilean witches who showed up
on the docks one day claiming a rival treasure hunter was bribing government
officials to stall Brandeis' paperwork. Actually, that one wasn't a bust
at all. The witches were completely right.
Brandeis' crew and investors accepted her new approaches with varying
degrees of faith. The consensus seemed to be that they'd try anything
once. Everyone still had the fever, it seemed. "Nobody wanted the
trip to end," Miller says. "If some guy had a crackpot invention
or was a dowser, well, shoot, maybe we'll find something there -- at least
it will keep the trip going and we can look legitimately for something
while we're using these guys. There was such a sense of desperation that
people were clutching at these psychic straws and dubious inventions."
During the rainy months, Brandeis would return home to raise money for
the next season's hunt. "I would sit there going, 'What am I doing?
I'm not 27 anymore. I'm not finding anything,' " she says. And the
money was getting tight. Aly Bruner, a former diamond importer who invested
$600,000 in the Ecuador expedition, says he continued to support Brandeis
because she spent their money carefully. "She stretched a dollar
bill like it was a thousand dollars," he says. "She wasn't living
at the Hilton Hotel in a $10,000-a-night suite. She was living on beans."
That may have been a necessity, since Brandeis continued to refuse any
salary -- her share of the treasure, she figured, would total about $30
million. As the money ran short, salaried crewmembers such as Miller skipped
paychecks in return for a bigger cut of the treasure. Brandeis' parents
even hocked their house to help her. It began to get, as she put it, "scary,"
but it was hard to give up.
"You want it so bad, you don't want to believe you just spent however
many years chasing after a ghost, something that maybe didn't exist at
all," Miller says. "And if you gave up, you'd never know if
you were a foot away from it."
Altogether, the crew worked the site for eight seasons, with a three-year
hiatus while Ecuadoran officials temporarily suspended her permits. But
on May 4, 1997, precisely 407 years after the galleon went down, Margaret
Brandeis finally decided to call it quits. No one was surprised. The money
was gone. Their visas were expired. And Miller admits the crew was secretly
relieved. They were worn out.
So was Brandeis. Her marriage, which had eroded over the years in Ecuador,
had ended, and she was bankrupt. The two expeditions, she calculated,
had cost more than $3.3 million, $400,000 of which came out of her own
pocket. The total value of the treasure she'd recovered and been allowed
to keep -- all from the Bahamas trip -- came to just $10,000.
THE OLD STRANGER
Brandeis dismissed her crew, sold the Hooker, and packed her bags
to go home. And this is where things got really strange.
According to Brandeis, she went out to hail a taxi to the airport. As
she waited, she says, a little old man approached her and dropped a few
Spanish pieces of eight into her palm. He told her he'd found them in
the bay when he was a boy diving for octopus, and that he believed them
to be from the wreck of the Santa Maria de los Remedios. He said
he could take her back to the spot.
By this point, Brandeis had been so repeatedly burned by strangers who
claimed they had insider information that she politely declined. She says
she climbed into a taxi and rode away, but then her curiosity won over,
and she told the cabbie to take her back. "I had to know," she
says. "I had to uncover the last stone, the last hole, the last dollar.
I had to use it up."
When Brandeis returned, she says, the old man was sitting on a nearby
park bench. The two of them went back to the dock, got into his small
wooden boat, and he paddled them out a quarter-mile past the spot where
Brandeis' crew had originally found the pottery. Then he threw the rock
he was using as an anchor overboard and waited. Brandeis quailed. She'd
never been diving alone in Ecuador because the water was so murky. Now
they were far from shore, at a depth of about 75 feet. Finally, she says
she pulled on her wetsuit, tied a rope around her waist, and instructed
the man to pull her up if she didn't surface in thirty minutes.
Brandeis dove down and ran her handheld metal detector over the seafloor.
It began to squeal. "I wasn't even excited then. I was going, 'It's
a beer can, it's a broken winch from a boat,' " Brandeis says. She
dug a little bit. More squealing. More digging. Very loud squealing. And
then she had ... something.
Brandeis held the object out into the current and watched the sediment
wash away. She says it revealed a gold figurine about the size of her
palm, carved into the shape of a person with a headdress and a necklace.
She had no question that it was Incan. Brandeis remembers her thought
process going something like this: "Oh my God! Oh boy, we found it!
"Shit. Now what am I gonna do?"
If the Ecuadoran government had kept her pottery, she figured, it would
surely keep the gold. "I'm standing there on the bottom going, 'It
was here, it really was here all these years,'" Brandeis recalls.
"And now I can't have it. I just can't do it. I won't bring it up
"I dove down again," she remembers. "We did five or six
dives and brought all that stuff up and took it back to his house and
I photographed it and left." She says she gave the gold to the elderly
gentleman. "I told him, 'Here, you have something for all your years
that you kept this a secret, that you really knew where it was all the
time, and if you tell anybody and it gets taken away from you, too bad.
I found it for you, here it is. I don't dare take any with me, they'll
arrest me at the airport. I have to go."
And with that, La Bucanera left to catch an airplane home.
The wreck of the Santa Maria de los Remedios may still be out there.
As far as Brandeis knows, the Ecuadoran government hasn't issued site
permits to anyone else, and with international sentiment turning against
treasure hunters, the ship could be there for a long time to come.
Five years after that last dive, Brandeis has no interest in returning
to Ecuador. "They won't even give me useless, valueless pottery,"
she says. "Why would I bring up all the gold and silver so that they
could take it away? If I get nothing, they get nothing. And the world
She has continued in her struggle to make the government hand over what
she believes is her share of the pottery. In 1997, Ecuador's Attorney
General ruled that Brandeis' contracts were valid and ordered the division
to take place. The Merchant Marines Office tried again in 2001, but Ecuador's
Ministry of Education and Culture continues to dispute the terms of the
contract. As yet, none of the pottery has been returned to the salvors;
it appears the investors who backed Brandeis have lost everything.
While Brandeis is back on land for now, the adjustment wasn't easy. After
seventeen unsalaried years at sea she had no savings or pension, and a
highly unusual résumé. She could pilot a boat, but didn't
know how to use Microsoft Word. Publishing-house bids on her story and
two proposed movie deals fell apart when she failed to bring back the
loot. So, in 2001, she paid a publisher to print her autobiography, Women
Can Find Shipwrecks Too.
Even this was problematic. She says she had to sue the publisher to get
him to turn over the books he'd promised her, and many of them, it turned
out, had dramatic layout errors, which scotched her plans of doing a book
tour and hitting the talk-show circuit. Her résumé, with
its curious seventeen-year gap, seemed to qualify her only for a series
of odd and short-lived jobs, including tow-truck dispatcher and marketer
for a company that made batteries. "Nobody needed a used pirate,"
Ultimately, Brandeis returned to real estate, and now works for an East
Bay property management firm. She moved into a house three doors down
from the one she grew up in, and saved enough to buy another ranch. "I'm
going in the direction I was heading when I got waylaid by treasure back
in 1979," she says wryly.
But Brandeis hedges when asked if anything could coax her back out onto
water. She does, matter of fact, have a few more maps, this time showing
wreck sites in the Azores, an island chain off the coast of Portugal.
The Azores are reputed as an incredibly rich trove of wrecks, the place
where treasure fleets were attacked as they made their way back into European
waters. The deep water there is said to have preserved the ships in excellent
condition. Brandeis says that although the Portuguese are relatively open
to issuing salvaging contracts, local authorities on the islands are resistant
to treasure-seeking efforts.
Her most loyal investors, like Bruner, say they're not as rich as they
once were, but would trust Brandeis to do it again. "To this day,
if Margee were to call me and say 'I've got credible information that
an alien spaceship has landed over in Timbuktu. We're going to go take
pictures of the aliens and salvage the spaceship and I need you to help
finance it,' I would do it for one reason: If she says it's there, it's
there," he says.
So hypothetically, could a clever person with investors and a good map
get a salvaging contract from, say, Portugal, anchor a boat in Portuguese
waters, and use remote-operated vehicles to search for wrecks, say, in
the Azores, without local officials being any the wiser? Here Brandeis,
who has thus far delighted in recounting her tale of life at sea, suddenly
becomes circumspect. "If humans want to do something, you're not
going to stop them," is all she'll say. "They're gonna find
a way to do it."