By George Brown
One of the highlights of my recent trip to Florida was snorkeling along the shoreline of Dry Tortugas, the home of Ft. Jefferson which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Unfortunately the assigned snorkeling area did not include the resting place of the windjammer, Avanti. Built in Scotland in 1875, the Avanti sank during a thunderstorm in 1907. She lies in shallow water about 1,000 yards off Loggerhead Key, one of the three small islands that comprise Dry Tortugas National Park.
Exploring the coral encrusted Avanti was not part of the Dry Tortugas itinerary, but reading about her fate brought to mind a snorkeling experience I very much enjoyed when Yvonne and I vacationed at Treasure Island, Fla. in March 2007. Longtime readers may recall a column I wrote about that adventure. I thought I would share it again for new readers.
It was a sunny weekday afternoon when the small pleasure craft pulled away from the dock and headed toward the dive site about two miles from Mullet Key in Tampa Bay. Mullet Key happens to be the home of another Civil War era fort, Ft. Desoto.
The other six tourists on board were all experienced divers so they only half listened as our guide reviewed the safety procedures and gave instructions about not touching the coral and other marine life. He was especially careful to emphasize the importance of the buddy system to keep track of each other while in the water, and since this was my first snorkeling experience I was more than happy to have him serve as my dive buddy.
When we arrived at the site and dropped anchor our guide told us that tides and underwater currents had been stronger than usual during the past winter, moving sand along the bottom of Tampa Bay that had scarecely been disturbed for a half a century or more. As almost an afterthought he mentioned that our dive site was the approximate location where the Spanish warship “Comico Cuento” had been sunk by two U.S. frigates during the Spanish American War.
As soon as we hit the water everyone starting stirring around on the bottom looking for coins instead of observing the coral, fish, and the beautiful plant life we had come to see. I was tempted to do the same, but with the guide as my dive buddy I was content to stick close as he pointed out the amazing underwater beauty that was all around.
The time allotted for the dive flew by and was almost up when I noticed a chunk of wood jutting out of the sand at the edge of a wave of seagrass. I motioned in a manner to ask the guide if it was alright to disturb the wood because he had told us not to touch anything except loose shells on the sea floor.
The guide nodded that it was okay so I gently pulled on the chunk of wood. To my surprise, as well as his, it moved easily revealing that this was not just a log that had drifted out to sea and settled on the reef. Perhaps it was in deed a scrap of the “Comico Cuento.”
We both began stirring around in the sand and suddenly there it was – a round dull brownish green looking object about the size of a half dollar. I picked it up and held it out for the dive guide to examine. He nodded in an approving manner and motioned toward the small pack on his back. Until then I hadn’t noticed that he was wearing a small aquatic backpack. In fact, until then I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an aquatic backpack.
I understood he meant for me to slip the coin – at least that is what it appeared to be – into the zip pocket of the backpack, which I did. We both continued to gently stir around in the sand for the few minutes that remained of our dive time, but that one crusted piece of metal, or coin, was all we found.
Back on board the guide slipped his aquatic backpack off and handed it to me. “Here, this is a gift for you to remember your first snorkeling adventure,” he said with a smile.
“Thank you, thank you so much,” I said as I took the backpack and pulled the coin from the safety of the zip pocket. As I did everyone gathered around asking about my find and speculating about whether it might actually be a Spanish gold coin. The guide suggested I take it to the Tampa Bay Museum, anticipating they could clean it and possibly give me some idea of its worth.
Yvonne and I arrived at the museum when the doors opened the next morning and found the curator on duty. She immediately confirmed that it was some type of coin then took us to an employee-only area in the rare coins section of the museum. Once there she placed the coin on a white cloth, put on a pair of surgical gloves, and gently started picking at the coin with a fine pointed tool that looked like it would be used in a dentist’s office.
After removing most of the crusted material from the coin she laid it in a shallow aluminum pan and poured a clear solution over it that smelled like ether. Over the next few minutes we watched as the color slowly started to change and within perhaps ten minutes it had turned to a sparkling gold. As the curator lifted the coin from the pan, dried it with a soft cloth and held it up to the light, she said “Mr. Brown, I do believe you have found yourself a rare Spanish Doubloon.” And then she added, “I’m not a coin expert but I suspect it could be worth as much as a quarter of a million dollars.”
As you can imagine, Yvonne and I stared at each other in amazement. We hadn’t won the lottery, but perhaps the next best thing.
Well, that was almost six years ago. I still have the aquatic backpack hanging in the closet with my other backpacks, and our Spanish Doubloon is still resting securely in a small piece of white tissue paper tucked away in our safe deposit box waiting for a rainy day, or maybe even a sunny day, to put it to good use.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He lives in Jackson Township.