The watery depths of the Caribbean, the Florida Keys, and the rest of the routes once sailed by Spanish galleons are littered with sunken treasure. Thanks to new tech, it’s easier than ever to find and recover that treasure.

But before you quit your job and start hitchhiking to Islamorada, know that it’s not as simple as unloading what you find on Ebay. In fact, it’s a real legal nightmare.

The New York Times tackles the mess that is recovered booty. Their for-instance is the case of the San José, which sank off Panama in 1631. The wreck was recovered by a group called IMDI, which had been granted salvage rights by Panama’s Ministry of Economy and Finance. Panama was supposed to get historical artifacts plus a 35 percent cut of everything else. But not everybody in the Panamanian government was happy with that distribution—we are talking priceless historical treasure, here. And even after a Unesco investigation, IMDI still couldn’t just stroll off with its finds:

“The government stopped us, even though we did everything by the book,” said Alberto Vásquez, an IMDI vice president.

This summer, when Mr. Vásquez emerged from a bank in Panama City where he had gone to retrieve some of the company’s share of coins that were stored in a safe deposit box, the government seized 3,000 coins, saying he did not have permission to transport them.

In September, Captain Porter, who led an expedition, returned to Florida with his 100 coins, worth about $500 or $600 each. The United States Border Patrol boarded his salvage vessel, searched it with dogs for six hours and confiscated the coins.

Meanwhile, those in the business of preserving historically valuable finds look askance at the treasure-hunting approach. Unesco’s Ulrike Guérin was skeptical it ever turns out that everybody’s happy: “I have not seen any case that was a success and everyone liking it. It ends up in a slaughter, destroying the heritage.” Nautical archeologist Filipe Castro was even more blunt. “Treasure hunters are to maritime archaeologists what astrologers are to astronomers,” he told the Times.

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Long story short, don’t bet your butt on a future skinny dipping in doubloons.


Contact the author at kelly@jezebel.com.

Photo via AP Images.