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An 18th century shipwreck believed to contain a king’s horde of Spanish gold, silver and jewels more spectacular than the $400 million treasure recovered by Mel Fisher from the sunken galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha has been found in deep water about 40 miles southwest of Key West. Treasure hunters who’ve examined the wreck say their research indicates that it’s the Notre Dame de Deliverance — a 166-foot, armed merchant vessel of French origin that sailed under a Spanish flag. The research includes surveys of the site by state-of-the-art remote sensing devices and divers, a study of historical records, and the discovery that a few silver items — including a crucifix, plate and some coins — were brought up years ago by other salvagers. “It was one of the richest ships ever lost,” says Greg Brooks, 51, the co-manager of Portland, Maine-based Sub Sea Research Inc., which is conducting the search and proposed salvage effort. He estimates the value of the Deliverance’s trove could be between $2 billion and $3 billion. Sub Sea Research recently followed its findings with a quiet trip to federal court in West Palm Beach, Fla., to stake a claim under admiralty law. In October, Sub Sea won an order from Senior U.S. District Judge James C. Paine allowing the company to “arrest” the shipwreck and protect itself from modern-day pirates. The wreck is located “substantially” inside the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary but outside Florida territorial waters, according to court records. The law considers wreck sites “submerged cultural resources.” Those found in the sanctuary — a federal trusteeship co-administered by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Florida — are strictly regulated. A permit is required to conduct a detailed survey and inventory of a wreck site. Additional permits are needed to recover and get title to the treasure. Brooks says the law should now protect the company from other possible claimants if the wreck is indeed the Deliverance. The state has no claim, says Brooks, because the wreck is beyond the three-mile limit. Spain has asserted admiralty claims to lost warships in U.S. courts, but the Deliverance was privately owned. SANK IN A HURRICANE The Notre Dame de Deliverance, hired by Spain and owned by the French West Indies Co., which is long defunct, capsized and sank in a hurricane on Nov. 1, 1755, a day after departing Havana for Cadiz, Spain. On board were 512 passengers and crew. The ship, named for an ancient French cathedral in the Normandy village of Lion-sur-Mer, was a top-heavy vessel equipped with 64 cannons, according to documentation cited by Sub Sea Research. It was hired by Spain because the kingdom was broke and could no longer build her own ships, and because the French and Indian War and the Seven Years War were diverting Spain’s naval resources. “By 1750, [Spain's system] that had for centuries shipped treasure back from the New World had virtually collapsed,” says R. Duncan Mathewson III, Mel Fisher’s former chief archaeologist who recently signed on as a consultant to Sub Sea Research. Mathewson, a member of the marine sanctuary’s advisory council, says Spain needed ships from other countries to transport treasure. The Deliverance departed Havana on Halloween with a Spanish escort of seven or eight smaller, schooner-like vessels called zabras, according to Brooks’ research in Cuba and elsewhere. The ship soon met a fate that Brooks now believes was remarkably similar to what befell the Atocha and its hapless crew in surrounding waters 133 years earlier. The hurricane struck the night after the ship left Havana, its eye passing over Havana to the southwest. The escorting zabras reportedly were able to survive the storm and scudded across the outer reefs to eventually anchor on the northwest side of the Marquesas Keys to ride out the storm the following morning, according to a research report prepared by Brooks and Sub Sea researcher Edward Michaud in July. The Deliverance, blown off course, wasn’t so lucky. Sailors from the escorts who made it back to Havana reported the treasure ship foundered in roiling seas 12 nautical miles off the Marquesas Keys, rolled over and sank in waters too deep to allow salvage. An incomplete manifest of Deliverance cargo that was owned by Spain’s King Charles III declares those riches to include 17 chests packed with nearly 1,200 pounds of gold bullion, 15,000 gold doubloons, six chests of gems, and more than a million silver pieces. That doesn’t count contraband or any valuable surviving belongings of passengers. In contrast, the 112-foot Atocha’s approximate yield to date is 115 gold bars, 900 silver bars, 200 pounds of gold, 3,000 emeralds, 135,000 silver coins and less than 100 gold coins. The largest treasure ever salvaged — worth more than $1 billion — was recovered in the 1990s from the 1857 wreck of the coal-burning sidewheeler S.S. Central America. That American ship went down off the coast of South Carolina carrying bullion and coins being brought back to the east coast by those who’d struck it rich during the California Gold Rush. EXCITED BUT CAUTIOUS If the shipwreck found by Sub Sea Research is indeed the Deliverance, it capsized and sank in waters 180 to 200 feet deep, about 10 miles from where the Atocha was found in shallower waters in the 1970s by the late Mel Fisher. Undersea search devices like side scan sonar and remotely operated vehicles have located an intact hull, two encrusted piles of ballast stones and what Brooks says appears to be cannons on the seabed. The wreck lies outside Florida’s territorial waters. “It looks like two wrecks,” says Brooks. Mathewson is enthusiastic but cautious about the find. “It is important to emphasize we haven’t dated or identified any of the [sonar] anomalies yet, and we don’t know if it is the Deliverance,” says the marine archeologist, who has not yet visited the site or seen video shot by Sub Sea Research. “But I’m very excited.” He says it’s promising that the wreck was a good-sized ship that appears to be pre-19th century. “We have side scan images of what looks like a well-articulated, intact lower hulled structure with full ballast,” he adds. Mathewson says records indicate clear signs of a hurricane at that particular time. “The question is did the Deliverance go down in this part of the keys or go down in some other part,” he says. The ship was reported to have flooded and foundered in a very deep sea. “You would therefore expect the hull to be pretty much intact, and that’s what the images are suggesting. It’s not a vessel that’s scattered or broken up.” The Deliverance has remained largely outside the shipwreck lore of the Keys. Even within the treasure hunting community, the Deliverance isn’t well known. Bob “Frogfoot” Weller, a longtime South Florida treasure hunter who’s written six books on the topic, says he’s never heard of the Deliverance. “Just because they find a ballast pile, that absolutely doesn’t make it a treasure wreck,” says Weller, who lives in Lake Worth. “There are thousands of wrecks along the coast of Florida, but there aren’t that many that are real, serious treasure wrecks.” Another dose of skepticism comes from Dr. John Broadwater. Broadwater is the manager of the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of North Carolina, the site of the wreck of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor. Its distinctive round turret was brought to the surface to great fanfare last summer. “Treasure hunters are often wrong, and so are archeologists,” Broadwater says. “It’s so easy to go off and find something that has some of the characteristics of what you are looking for because you want so much to find it.” Still, more than one member of famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher’s team has found evidence about the Keys wreck site convincing enough to join Sub Sea Research’s team. Lead attorney Guy E. “Sandy” Burnette Jr., a Tallahassee, Fla., solo practitioner, says he’s brought aboard Fisher attorneys David Paul Horan of Key West and William VanDercreek, professor emeritus of Florida State University’s law school. Burnette convinced Judge Paine that the find is genuine — and that an order protecting the wreck from rival treasure seekers was necessary — by showing him lead sheathing that once protected the hull from worms and was recovered outside the national marine sanctuary. The sheathing is the only item removed so far by Sub Sea Research, Brooks says. The court order applies to an area that covers 18 square miles. About 90 percent of the wreck is located in the sanctuary, he says. Still, Burnette says, “we had to go to court to protect our rights outside the sanctuary.” Sub Sea Research applied for an inventory permit in September. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration general counsel Martin Freeman, in Silver Spring, Md., confirmed the application is pending but declined further comment. An official at the marine sanctuary’s Key Largo office who is familiar with the application declined comment. Still, Brooks and Burnette remain confident they’ve complied with the rules and will get the permit soon. “We’ve gotten very strong assurances that they won’t consider another permit for the area while ours is pending,” says Burnette. Brooks says that “once we get it in hand, and the weather clears, we’ll be back at the site.” The marine sanctuary rules, which evolved from Mel Fisher’s protracted and ultimately successful legal battle with Florida over the right to the Atocha treasure, allow private salvagers to work wrecks on public property as long as the public’s interest in historic preservation is protected. Generally, that means commercial salvagers like Sub Sea Research can obtain legal title to valuable items such as bullion, coins and gems deemed by archeologists to be of no special historical interest. The public would own any unique artifacts. But because the marine sanctuary’s rules of ownership are inexact, the potential remains for litigation over each item if and when treasures of disputed ownership are hauled from the wreck. DISTRACTED BY COLUMBUS’ SHIP Before he hunted sunken treasure, Brooks built swimming pools for a living. About a decade ago, after 19 years in that business, he cashed out to find his fortune. Brooks’ principal partner and fellow investor is John Hardy, a former National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer who currently runs a La-Z-Boy Furniture Gallery in South Portland. Brooks says he’s personally spent a million dollars so far in the hunt for treasure that he believes has led him to the Deliverance. He’s helped make ends meet doing salvage work for insurance companies. Brooks, who is married and has a 15-year-old daughter, has plans to create a shipwreck museum and aquarium in Portland. Until late June, when they first identified the wreck in the Straits of Florida as the Deliverance, Brooks and his associates spent much of their search time in wreck-infested waters off the north coast of Haiti. It’s there that Brooks and his partners think they’ve made another stunning discovery — the ballast stones and anchor of Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria. The Santa Maria struck a reef and sank off Cape Haitien in 1492. Last summer, Brooks was preparing to return to Haiti when Michaud, a Sub Sea researcher in Framingham, Mass., began turning up information about the Deliverance. “The more we dug, the more we found that fit,” says Brooks. So Haiti was off, and Key West was on. While Brooks and his company are the first to identify the Keys wreck as the Deliverance, they are not the first divers to have visited the site. In the mid-1990s, Thomas Yerian, a Key West resident, was issued a five-year search permit by the sanctuary, but it later expired. Yerian could not be located for comment. “It’s been found before, but nobody recognized it,” says Brooks. Or, perhaps, nobody’s had the resources until now to mount an expensive and hazardous expedition, and overcome the bureaucracy, to locate and raise valuables from the wreck site. Brooks began attempting to check out the Keys wreck site in 1998. Recent technological advances in underwater imaging devices, however, are opening up the search, he says. Sub Sea Research’s primary recovery vessel is the 102-foot M/V Diamond, a converted U.S. Navy torpedo retriever that’s currently docked on Stock Island near Key West. Today, says Brooks, about a dozen people are employed by Sub Sea Research to conduct the search of the Deliverance and document it with TV cameras; more will sign on when salvage activity at the site resumes. Everyone is a subcontractor, working mostly on speculation for an agreed-upon share of any booty. SURVIVORS CANNIBALIZED? All 512 crew and passengers on the Deliverance were presumed lost at sea. But Brooks and Michaud now hypothesize that as many as 400 survivors used small longboats and gigs to reach Matanca Key, a spit of sand nearby. The site now is submerged and is named Rebecca Shoal. Historians previously have reported that 400 Frenchmen were butchered and cannibalized by Calusa Indians on Matanca Key, or Slaughter Key as it was also known, sometime before 1775. Brooks says he’s since learned that a year after the Deliverance sank, a French governor-general in the Caribbean dispatched two French frigates and 600 French and Spanish sailors to the Marquesas Keys to enact retribution on the Calusas for their alleged involvement in the massacre of French seamen who had survived a shipwreck. The French found the bulk of the Calusa tribe on Key West and slaughtered more than 3,000. The bloodbath, Brooks says, marked the beginning of the end for the now-extinct tribe and may account for Key West’s Spanish name, Cayo Hueso, or Island of Bones. That hypothesis may never be proved. But 40 miles away, the answers to other questions are lying in the twilight 200 feet down. “The bottom is flat there,” Mathewson says. “There’s no coral growth. It’s kind of a silty sand substrate, and there won’t be any environmental problems with doing work on this site. If it’s the Deliverance, it’s pretty much just sitting there, waiting.”

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