Underwater archaeologist on quest for queen's jewels
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Underwater archeologist on quest for queen's jewels from 1715 shipwreck off Sebastian Inlet
Years ago, underwater archaeologists lived by the motto "finders keepers" when they struck gold. Today is a different story, but that doesn't stop them from searching.
Sir Robert Marx, of Indialantic, is one such underwater archaeologist — dare not call him a treasure hunter — who enjoys sharing tales of the deep ocean blue and the world's rich maritime history.
The author of 64 books will talk about the 1715 shipwreck off Sebastian Inlet and its impact next week at Florida Tech.
"The 300th year anniversary is coming up for the loss of that wreck and the whole fleet," he said. "I want to make sure people know about it."
That wreck has been the subject of numerous books, articles, documentaries and blogs. Capitan-General Don Juan Esteban de Ubilla and his flagship, the Capitana, contained quite the cargo: more than 3.5 million pesos in priceless treasure, specifically, the queen of Spain's jewels. En route from Havana, Cuba, to Spain, 12 ships sank and their crew perished during a hurricane on July 30.
During his lifetime, Marx has found bountiful treasures, but this one has remained maddeningly elusive.
"We know where the wreck is, but these things are complicated," he explained recently as he reclined in his office chair in the home he shares with wife, Jenifer, a philanthropist, diving expert and author. Priceless artifacts line their bookshelves and fireplace mantles. There's little room for even a coaster on the coffee tables and side tables, for they're occupied by thousands-year-old jade pieces or fine china.
Among his best finds? An 80-pound gold helmet that Marx said belonged to Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama.
Marx gives a brief lesson about martime history and the lure of the sea. "A lot of information we can't find just by diving," he said. "But we're in it for knowledge, not to get rich."
The pioneer in scuba diving has called the Sunshine State home since the 1960s, working on shipwrecks in Sebastian, Cape Canaveral, Daytona and along the coast. "In those days, I was running around the world," he recalled. "I worked on shipwrecks and sunken cities in 62 countries — every place from Malaysia to Singapore." He was knighted in Spain, Portugal and England — honors bestowed on him in January 1963.
Marx turns 80 in December; he stays active, exercising everyday by walking and swimming.
He guest lectures at Florida Tech every six weeks to graduate students studying underwater archaeology.
"His presence and his enthusiasm for these sorts of things has kept that course going," said George Maul, head of marine and environmental systems at the Melbourne university. "We have a rich history in this community of shipwrecks, which is not good news because many unfortunate people lost their lives in them. But they don't call it Treasure Coast for no reason, so it's very much a part of our heritage."
Nichole Abt of Sebastian, manager of Mel Fisher's Treasure Museum, seconds that. "Because of the name of the Treasure Coast and all the history that's here, especially locals, if they're not already they should be interested in it," he said.
Maul said he has read several of Marx's books.
"It puts a human touch on to some of the technology that we have here (at Florida Tech) and are developing," he says. "It encourages our students to want to invent new machines for underwater recovery beyond archaeology. It sparks an ability for us to do these things."
The process to unearth sunken treasure is not an easy one. Aside from the thousands of hours of research and guessimations on where to start, Marx puts it into perspective: "A metal detector will find your phone if it's under sand or coral at the most 3 feet away. If it's under 3 1/2 feet, nothing will find it."
Before the lecture about the queen's jewels, Marx will discuss salvage law, the delicate debate on which government gets what if something is found — Spain? The state of Florida? Very rarely is itthe underwater archaeologist who made the discovery.
"It's not finders keepers anymore," says Abt, who is the granddaughter of famed treasure hunter Mel Fisher.
Many of Marx's findings are housed in museums all over the world.
But no matter what coveted artifacts he brings up, nothing compares to the biggest treasure he's ever found, he said: "I'm married to her."