Margaret Brandeis had a recurring dream: 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 anymore.”
The next decade was a serendipitous blur. The young woman 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 College.
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 tour.”
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 was.
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, worked wrecks in 62 countries, and 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 rounded edge.
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 pole.
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 to land.
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, 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 and archivists. “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 process. 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,” Hamilton says.
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. 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 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 about cave-ins.
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 and time-consuming.”
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 engines.
Despite these disappointments, what kept Brandeis 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 right track.
In accordance with her permits, Brandeis 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, 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 admits 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 dump.”
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 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 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, 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 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. It revealed a gold figurine about the size of her palm, carved into the shape of a person with a headdress and a necklace. There was no question it was Incan. Brandeis remembers her thought process going something like this: “Oh my God! Oh boy, we found it! Wow! Okay!”
“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 for free.”
“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 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 gets nothing.”
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 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,” she sighs.
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.” Spoken like a true pirate.