EDITOR’S NOTE: Contributing columnist, Steve Nicklas, expresses his views and insight on various topics in Marketplace column.
When Doug Pope looks out across the Nassau Sound, he sees more than simply the ordinary eye.
He sees the white sand of Bird Island in the distance. He sees the craggy tree roots of Big Talbot Island to the south. And he sees the choppy confluence of the Nassau Sound feeding into the Atlantic Ocean.
Aside from the aesthetic riches, he believes there is something else more tangible and valuable off the southernmost shores of Amelia Island. Buried treasure. And lots of it. Like enough to fill the hull of a Spanish carrack such as the San Miguel.
Pope believes the San Miguel made it up to Amelia Island in efforts to escape a hurricane of 1715 that downed the other ships in its fleet. Or else it crashed to the south along the 40 miles of the eastern shoreline between here and St. Augustine.
But there is substantial proof of its whereabouts — through remnants found near the south end of Amelia Island. Some of the findings include a jewelers’ furnace (that came up in a shrimper’s net) and cannons and gold coins. All circumstantial evidence of a Spanish ship having been nearby.
The San Miguel is actually one of the richest treasure ships yet to be found. Its cargo is estimated to be worth a cool $2 billion.
“Absolutely,” Pope says with a deadpan expression when asked if he believes the San Miguel treasure is out there somewhere. So Pope and Amelia Research & Recovery have ambitious plans to search for it this summer. They intend to use their three-legged Polly L vessel to blow holes in the sandy floor bordering the south end of Amelia Island — in pursuit of uncovering the buried treasure.
Treasure hunters are a unique breed. They hold steadfast to ironclad convictions that gold and silver and gems are out there; it’s just a matter of time and technology and testing to sift through the sand accumulated over hundreds of years.
However, the state of Florida has restricted their craft for years now. Difficulty in obtaining permits and in laying a claim to a treasure have impeded many of their activities. But new Gov. Rick Scott has charted a new course.
In fact, Scott welcomed Pope and other treasure hunters to a dinner at the governor’s mansion recently in celebration of Columbus’s first visit to Florida 500 years ago. Scott praised Pope and others for their work in helping to piece together the state’s rich history.
So Pope feels an urgency and an opportunity. “We want to strike while the iron is hot,” Pope says in regard to seeking permission to search for the San Miguel treasure. And traditionally May 1 is the beginning of treasure season, as the oceans calm.
Amelia Research & Recovery also has opened a fascinating non-profit museum on South Eighth Street in Fernandina Beach to house and show off its findings. (“The Maritime Museum of Amelia Island” at 1335 South 8th Street, Fernandina Beach, Florida.) The local treasure group has also collaborated on some research with Mel Fisher’s family members.
Pope’s focus remains here. “We’re going to hit Amelia Island pretty hard,” he says.
The history of the San Miguel is also fascinating. The ship was faster than the rest of its fleet, and it was believed to be farther to the north than the others when the hurricane hit. Sixty wealthy passengers were aboard along with a cargo of tobacco — and treasure headed for Spain.
Spain was in dire need of funds after the War of Succession. So one of the richest treasure fleets was assembled, which included the San Miguel. In the years following 1715, some of the other ships and their bounties were found by Spanish search parties. But not the San Miguel.
Pope wants to find it. He believes he has the knowledge and the equipment and the manpower to do it. He can feel it — and see it.