Ships, Shipwrecks, and Salvage

Admiralty Amiss

Sunken ships and treasure are a fascinating subject that grabs the imagination. Visions of adventure and instant wealth have lured many into treasure hunting. Most treasure hunts end in failure.

Spanish treasure shipwrecks are particularly captivating. The sunken treasure craze began mostly in Florida as many galleons were lost while sailing from Havana, Cuba, to Spain. Their route took them up the Florida coast with the Gulf Stream. This is also known as Hurricane Alley.

The advent of SCUBA diving invited many adventurers into the water while underwater detection technology aided in the discovery of shipwrecks. In 1733, a fleet of Spanish ships were lost in the Florida Keys. A man named Art McKee was shown a ballast pile in the 1930s by a fisherman which lead to discovery of many of the ships with the aid of documents from the Spanish archives in Seville, Spain. McKee has been remembered as the Father of Modern Treasure Diving.

Spanish pieces of eight had been found for years on Florida southern beaches which led to the discovery of the 1715 fleet in 1961.

These discoveries brought more treasure seekers from across the country. One was Mel Fisher who ultimately located the 1622 Spanish ships, Santa Margarita and the Nuestra Señora de Atocha at the Marquesas Keys in the early 1980s. Fisher won a landmark case in the Supreme Court defeating the federal government’s claim.

Bert Webber found the Nuestra Señora de la Concepción, a galleon lost in 1641 off Santo Domingo. He had a contract with the Dominican Republic which gave him 75% of his discoveries.

Some of the most remembered cases were the discovery of the Titanic in 1985, the Central America sunk in 8000 feet of water and discovered in 1988, and the Brother Jonathan lost in 1965 and discovered in 1993.

The discovery of treasure ships brought out many interlopers hoping to cash in. The most notorious of them were the state and Federal governments. These cases ended up in special jurisdiction federal courts known as admiralty courts. Before courts can accept the cases the salvor had to prove that the court had subject matter jurisdiction. In the Supreme Court case of the Sabine in 1880 three elements for a valid salvage claim are:

  1. A marine peril must exist.
  2. Service is voluntary rendered.
  3. There is success in whole or in part or that the service rendered contributes to the success.

So, in the cases above that were brought before an admiralty court, success of discovery was the act of bringing into court a piece of the wreck or cargo which could be attributed to the specific vessel.

Two cases in recent years have involved shipwrecked vessels that have been awarded to a sovereign government when the in rem defendant shipwrecks had not been found and in one case the defendant vessels were fraudulently contrived. In Subaqueous Exploration and Archaeology, Ltd. Decided in 1983, the Federal District Court for the District of Maryland awarded four shipwrecks to the State of Maryland even after the court was alerted to the fraud. In Sea Hunt, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals awarded two shipwrecks to the Kingdom of Spain that were never identified as Spanish. According to the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, these unidentified, but clearly not Spanish, vessels were property of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

A third case, Indian River Recovery Company, the court was asked to believe discovery was made on research alone. While the ships may have been real, the claims of discovery were easily disproven.

The debris from these unnecessary and ill-conceived cases remain enshrined in federal case law waiting for the uninformed to be taken in.

Law of the Sea also brings you other stories of maritime interest that are not readily available elsewhere.