Students get look at salvage treasure Diver brings gold from Spanish ship to history lesson

September 25, 1996|By Tanya Jones | Tanya Jones,SUN STAFF

As a show-and-tell item, this would be tough to top: A 1.5-pound gold bar shaped like a ruler, value $74,000.

The gleaming, dented bar, more than 400 years old, is one of Ed Hinkle's nifty visual aids.

The diver and aircraft pilot, who last month was scooping emeralds from the floor of the Florida Straits, came to Severna Park Middle School yesterday to share the tale of a search for sunken treasure lost in 1622.

Hinkle, 41, wore a 400-year-old gold coin on a chain around his neck; in his pants pocket, a silver piece-of-eight coin made a funny clank against the more mundane change.

The coins are items he helped find among the treasure of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a galleon that sank off the Florida Keys during a hurricane in 1622.

Accompanied by a slide show, Hinkle spun a tale that began with the Atocha's voyage and ended with the salvage operation that continues today off the islands, the result of a search that began in 1969. More than $400 million worth of silver, gold, artifacts and jewels, including the emeralds, has been found so far, Hinkle said.

The Key West resident spoke with reverence about the Atocha's bounty and about Mel Fisher, a scuba instructor turned treasure hunter who doggedly led the search for it.

"She carried more treasure than any ship had carried in history," Hinkle said. "Mel Fisher was a treasure hunter and he spent 16 years of his life looking for this one shipwreck."

Today, the story of the search for the galleon serves as a tangible history lesson, told as part of a traveling exhibition of items for sale.

"What's come out now is the actual story and the history behind some of the pieces," Hinkle said after his presentation. "We like to tell the kids because it's history. And big kids like it, too. Sunken treasure has that effect on all age groups."

In the 70 years after the Atocha sank, Spain continued to send salvage missions to the area where the mast of the sunken vessel was last seen. In 1969, nearly 300 years later, Fisher picked up the trail. Within two years his crew of divers began finding thousands of silver coins, silver bars, gold bars, as well as rare navigational tools and the jewel-encrusted belongings of the ship's passengers.

But it wasn't until 1985 that two divers stumbled upon the mother lode -- the main part of the wreckage and its cargo.

"As far as they could see was a reef of silver bars about 4 feet high," Hinkle said.

The students oohed and aahed at descriptions of chests filled with 3,000 to 7,000 coins each, the recovery of 13 bars of gold in 20 minutes, and one thick, gold money chain that was 64 feet long.

"This is how you carried your money around 400 years ago," Hinkle said. "You didn't have banks or paper money."

Maureen England, 11, was surprised to learn "how emeralds were worth more than diamonds" and that the searchers could write and sketch underwater to keep a record of what they found.

Hinkle explained that they used pencils to write and draw on rough plastic slates or on paper designed for use underwater.

"It gives the kids a chance to see real applications," Principal Judy Jenkins said of the presentation. It may spur students in the enrichment program at Severna Park to develop projects related to the treasure hunt.

And some -- like Jenkins -- may just want to get a closer look at the loot.

Items worth about $4 million will be on display at Parisi's Diamond Trust in Crofton Station on Route 3 Thursday through Sunday. Several divers and search crew members travel with items for sale by Sinclair's Archaeological Educational Services Inc.

Pub Date: 9/25/96

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