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How much sunken treasure is in the ocean?

PortandTerminal.com, January 29, 2020

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – A while back we ran an article that asked the question, “How many shipwrecks are there in the world?”. It turns out that there are an estimated 3 million shipwrecks and that less than one percent of them have been explored. This article asks a follow-up question. How much sunken treasure is in the ocean?

READ: How many shipwrecks are there in the world?

Popular Mechanics ran a great article back in 2012 that posed this question to an expert, Sean Fisher, the grandson of Mel Fisher, a famous and very successful treasure hunter. Here’s what Sean Fisher had to say.

Sean Fisher has picked up where his grandfather Mel left off

The short answer, Sean Fisher says, is $60 billion. Fisher is a shipwreck hunter at Mel Fisher’s Treasures in Key West (Sean is Mel’s grandson), and he gives this figure based on his company’s historical research. Fisher specializes in finding Spanish vessels that sank while toting gold, silver, and other loot from the Americas to Europe. And the Spaniards, Fisher says, kept records in triplicate, allowing modern-day shipwreck hunters to see the preserved ship manifests. Those manifests reveal an incredible amount of wealth crossing the ocean, and occasionally sinking into it.

“For about 300 years, the Spaniards came over here and stole all of the wealth of the Americas,” Fisher says. “They would lose about 10 percent of that as the cost of doing business. Several wrecks out there by themselves are worth several billion dollars.”

Sean’s grandfather Mel Fisher was an American treasure hunter best known for finding the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha in 1985. The estimated $450 million treasure recovered, known as “The Atocha Motherlode,” included 40 tons of gold and silver; there were some 114,000 of the Spanish silver coins known as “pieces of eight”, gold coins, Colombian emeralds, gold and silver artefacts, and 1,000 silver ingot. The emeralds from the Atocha are considered to be some of the finest in the world.

The Supreme Court of the United States confirmed Fisher’s ownership to the recovered treasure and transferred ownership of 75% of the appraised value of all material recovered. Fisher went on to set up his own treasure hunting company, Mel Fisher’s Treasures and succeeded in finding several other shipwrecks in Florida’s waters.

Other experts are less certain about how much sunken treasure is down there. Maritime historian Amy Mitchell-Cook at the University of West Florida says she doesn’t think it’s possible to make an estimate. “Even in Pensacola Bay, where I am, I don’t think we have an accurate number of shipwrecks,” she says. “There were Spanish, French, English, and Americans all in the area, as well as international trade. We know a lot of ships sank, but we don’t have a complete set of records.”

 The Royal Navy’s ‘Expedition’, 70 guns, is shown in the centre attacking the Spanish flagship, the ‘San José’, 60 guns. Painting by Samuel Scott (1702-1772)

To give a taste of what still remains to be found, consider the legendary San Jose galleon, a Spanish ship rumored to contain up to $17 billion in treasure including gold, silver, emeralds and other gems. Remains of the Spanish galleon were discovered off Colombia in 2015 by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). 

The wreck of the San Jose galleon was formally identified thanks to its cannons seen here

The San Jose was launched in 1698 and served as part of the Spanish treasure fleet, a convoy of ships tasked with transporting valuable items from the Spanish Empire back to Spain. The massive, 64-gun galleon came under fire trying to outrun the British in 1708 and sank, its entire stash of emeralds, silver and gems intact.

FILE – In this Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015 file photo, Ernesto Montenegro, Director of the Colombian Institute of Anthropology and History of Colombia, talks to the media while he shows a picture of remains of the Galleon San Jose during a press conference in Cartagena, Colombia. The United Nations cultural agency has called on Colombia not to commercially exploit the 300-year-old wreck of the Spanish galleon San Jose, which is believed to contain a cargo worth billions of dollars. A UNESCO experts’ body protecting underwater cultural heritage based in Paris on Friday, April 27, 2018 sent a letter expressing concern that recovering the treasure for sale rather than for its historical value “would cause the irretrievable loss of significant heritage.” (AP Photo/Pedro Mendoza, file)

As of yet, the treasure has not been recovered due to legal wrangling and ownership issues. But if the treasure it holds really is worth $17 billion (and some have suggested as much as $20 billion), then Sean Fisher’s estimate that there is still $60 billion in treasure in the ocean sounds low.

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