SEA HUNT, INCORPORATED v. UNIDENTIFIED WRECKED VESSEL OR VESSELS 221 F.3d 634 (2000)
The following is based on personal information and historical research of the author, John L. Amrhein, Jr., and the pleadings and filings reviewed in the Sea Hunt Case.
On September 5, 1750, the Spanish warship, La Galga, ran ashore on Assateague Island, Virginia. It has been the subject of many searches, not because of the promise of treasure, but because of the explicit instructions left by the captain on how to find the wreck. A survey done to settle the dispute between Maryland and Virginia as to whose jurisdiction La Galga lay in, placed the wreck within two ship’s lengths north of the surveyed line. Captain Huony had been told when he came ashore that he was in Virginia and “on the border.” Treasure hunters in the future failed to understand that it was necessary to locate two boundary lines, not one.
In December of 1983, this author submitted to the United States Fish and Wild Life Service, The National Park Service, The Commonwealth of Virginia, The Smithsonian Institution, National Geographic and various historical societies and agencies a report on the location of La Galga. After several years of intermittent magnetometer searches in the ocean with no luck, a plat was discovered at the Accomack County Courthouse that provided the solution to locating the wreck. The plat was prepared for the federal takeover of Assateague Island and recorded the two boundaries that would pinpoint the location of La Galga. It also proved that the beach had built out over the centuries establishing that La Galga was buried in a former inlet and explained why no one could find La Galga in the ocean. This discovery also confirmed the legend that the wild horses of Assateague came from a Spanish shipwreck swallowed in an inlet centuries ago. In 1984, NOAA entered into its AWOIS (Automated Wreck and Obstruction Information System) news of the 1983 report published in the Washington Post on December 13, 1983. This report and several newspaper articles disclosed that La Galga was buried in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
On October 27, 1802, the Spanish frigate, Juno, sank over 280 miles from the American coast. The sinking was witnessed by the American schooner, Favorite, which was standing by to assist the distressed Spaniards as the Juno was full of water and sinking. Seven Spaniards had transferred to the Favorite before the Juno sank. One of them was Lt. Francisco Clemente whose report was preserved in the archives of Spain. The Favorite arrived at Boston, Massachusetts, on November 1, 1802 and reported the details of Juno’s loss which was printed in newspapers along the American seaboard.
The latitude and longitude of 38°N 67° 56’W were recorded by the Favorite hours before the Juno sank. Because of a transposition error of longitude to 76° made by the Charleston City Gazette, which was later sent to Havana and then to Spain, some modern historians and treasure hunters were convinced that the Juno sank close to land in contradiction to the last position recorded by the Favorite.
On March 11, 1998, Sea Hunt, Inc. filed claim to two unidentified shipwrecks laying in the waters off of Assateague. Sea Hunt had no evidence that they had found two Spanish shipwrecks but they did produce evidence of unidentified shipwrecks.
The United States Department of Justice took it upon themselves to represent the Kingdom of Spain by the authority of the Treaty of Friendship and General Relations of 1902. This reciprocal agreement said that each country would protect each other’s ships within each country’s TERRITORIAL WATERS. This agreement did not cover ships buried on land or shipwrecks in international waters. The DOJ was soon precluded from representing Spain at tax payer expense but the DOJ continued to file friend of the court briefs in support of Spain and never mentioned NOAA’s database entry for La Galga. Had they, an evidentiary hearing would have been called most likely resulting in a dismissal. The Commonwealth of Virginia filed its own claim since the unidentified shipwrecks lay in Virginia waters. Virginia made no mention of the report that they received in 1984 that contradicted their claim to La Galga.
When Sea Hunt filed its claim they were well aware of my findings related to the boundary line recorded in the Accomack County Courthouse. In 1985, I had personally given the report to Peter Hess who became Sea Hunt’s attorney in 1998. Sea Hunt chose to ignore the documented boundaries because they contradicted the location that they wanted to believe was La Galga. However, their Complaint covered from the present boundary line south to latitude 37° 57’ 21”. Sea Hunt claimed nearly six miles of coast line. Sea Hunt felt success was guaranteed with this much claimed. But La Galga had to be in the ocean for them to succeed.
As for Sea Hunt’s claim of discovery of the Juno, they were well aware of Cesáreo Fernandez Duro’s account of the sinking of the Juno published in 1867 that placed the sinking 280 miles off the coast in international waters. Sea Hunt’s complaint was said to be based on the ‘information and belief’ of Sea Hunt’s president. Had Sea Hunt heeded the correct historical information on position in its possession, they would not have filed this reckless claim. But it was the sight of Spanish coins found on the beach that cinched the deal. Sea Hunt was unaware that Spanish coins were legal tender in the U.S. until 1857.
It is not known if the U.S. Department of Justice consulted the AWOIS database before or during the Sea Hunt litigation. The Commonwealth of Virginia ignored the report that was recognized by their Underwater Archaeologist in 1984:
“It is very apparent that you’ve spent a great deal of time
on your research and the location you have predicted sounds
very plausible. I think you are to be commended for devoting
so much energy to the research and for sharing that research
One of the others was the Smithsonian Institution:
“Your belief, based on location of anomalies detected by a proton magnetometer, that this vessel’s remains lie within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, is particularly significant. It would ensure federal protection of the site pending a careful archaeological survey.”
The federal government rejected my offer to survey the area for them so I moved on. They promised to make note of the location.
Ultimately, both shipwrecks were awarded to Spain in 2000 by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals even though nothing in the court record suggested that they had been actually discovered. In 2001, the Department of Interior, along with the Commonwealth of Virginia and the State of Maryland set out to prove that Sea Hunt had in fact discovered two Spanish shipwrecks so they could be placed on the National Register of Historic Places. They failed in that mission.
In 2010, the National Park Service with the cooperation of Spain, established an exhibit of some of the Sea Hunt artifacts at the Assateague Island National Seashore. This exhibit leads the uninformed to believe the Juno and La Galga had been found and that the artifacts belonged to Spain.
In 2008, this author filed for a permit under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act to perform magnetic surveys within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. That application went unanswered until 2014 when the USFWS agreed to issue a Special Use Permit that would allow magnetic searches but no further verification activities that would require ground disturbance. It also confined the survey area. After three visits, which eliminated a great deal of area and mapping a debris trail, this author was able to declare that La Galga lay outside the permit area and was pinpointed to be in the precise area dictated by the two historic boundary lines and the same area pinpointed by Ronnie Beebe, whose family remembered the Spanish shipwreck legend, and had resided in the area for centuries. It was his family who told Marguerite Henry in 1946 that the horses came from a wrecked Spanish galleon. She wrote Misty of Chincoteague which has sold millions and was made into a movie in 1961.
After a new permit request was filed in 2019, the USFWS stated in no uncertain terms that I must acknowledge that Spain owns the wreck; that I needed written permission from Spain, and that the USFWS would not help me get that permission.
I refused to make that concession because it would be contrary to law and fact.
- In 1750, Captain Huony abandoned La Galga when he declared at Assateague “the Owner of the Land” owns the wreck.
- In 1763, in the Treaty of Friendship between Spain and England, Spain surrendered all that Spain owns on the North American Continent to England which included La Galga. England returned Cuba to Spain.
- Assateague was condemned on 1943 giving it to the Department of Interior. The court ordered that all fixtures to the land would convey with the land. That included La Galga.
- In 1987, the Abandoned shipwreck Act declared that any abandoned shipwreck buried on federal land was property of the federal government.
- The award of La Galga and the Juno to Spain by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals has no weight in law as it is merely an advisory opinion to the Kingdom of Spain because the judgement was in rem. The court never acquired in rem jurisdiction over the Spanish wrecks because no Spanish shipwrecks were arrested. The 4th Circuit confirmed that its intended judgement was in rem.
During the Court proceedings it was clear that the shipwrecks had not been found. The Court was led to believe that had in rem jurisdiction because the parties, Sea Hunt, the Commonwealth of Virginia, and the Kingdom of Spain agreed that the shipwrecks were in Virginia waters within the arrested area. This agreement cannot create a lien on Spanish shipwrecks that weren’t discovered or any part salvaged. Jurisdiction over the res is obtained by arrest under process of the court. In absence of an arrest, no decree in rem can be rendered against the res. Alyeska Pipeline Service Company v. Vessel Bay Ridge, 703 F.2d 381, 1983, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, quoting Yokohama Specie Bank, Limited v. Cheng T. Wang, 113 F2d 329 (cert. denied, 311 U.S. 690, 61 S.Ct. 71, 85 L.Ed. 446 (1940); G. Robinson, Handbook of Admiralty Law 358 (1939). A court obtains in rem jurisdiction over a vessel when a maritime lien attaches to the vessel.”). 98 M. Norris, The Law of Salvage.
Three prerequisites for a salvage claim must exist. In the Supreme Court case of the The Sabine, 101 U.S. 384 (1879), these elements for a valid salvage claim were established:
- a marine peril must exist.
- Service is voluntary rendered.
- There is success in whole or in part or that the service rendered contributes to the success.
The record is clear that Sea Hunt had no success in locating or salvaging any items from La Galga or the Juno. The Court had no jurisdiction in rem over La Galga or the Juno. Spain, represented by the DOJ, filed claims to two unidentified shipwrecks rightfully the property of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Spain had no standing to file in rem claims without giving evidence as to why these two shipwrecks were Spanish. They merely relied on Sea Hunt’s unsupportable “information and belief.”
Sea Hunt, Spain, and the Commonwealth of Virginia entered into a stipulation that the wrecks were in Virginia waters. Without this stipulation, the case would have suffered a dismissal, or at least excusing the Kingdom Spain from the proceeding for lack of standing. Sea Hunt’s claim was valid as they satisfied subject matter jurisdiction and had artifacts from unidentified vessels arrested in rem.
Jurisdiction in rem cannot be conferred by agreement of the parties. Inadvertent mistake cannot create in rem jurisdiction. On April 1, 1999, Spain’s attorney proposed the agreement:
THE COURT: “Can I assume from both parties here to this case that you are all satisfied that I should rule upon this matter on the agreement of counsel that the vessel is the Juno?”
GOOLD: “Yes. We believe that the court can rule, affirm Spain’s ownership regardless of which place it happens to be. The legal principles that establish Spain’s ownership do not depend where it came to rest.”
This agreement is referenced in the 4th Circuit opinion: “It is undisputed that LA GALGA and JUNO are within Virginia’s submerged lands,” 4th Circuit Opinion, p. 640. But they weren’t. La Galga was buried beneath federal lands and the Juno was lying far out in international waters.
Parties cannot confer in rem jurisdiction by agreement. McCreary, Robert G., Going for the Jugular Vein: Arrests and Attachments in Admiralty, 28 Ohio St. L. J. 19, 29 (1967). Owen, David R., “Some Legal Troubles With Treasure: Jurisdiction, and Salvage,” Journal of Maritime Law and Commerce, Vol. 16, No. 2, April, 1985.
Parties cannot confer subject matter jurisdiction by agreement. In Sea Hunt, the Court had subject matter jurisdiction (admiralty) only over the unidentified vessels. Since La Galga and the Juno did not lie within the claimed geographic coordinates, there was no service rendered or success in finding or salvaging La Galga or the Juno so there was no enforceable lien by Sea Hunt. “[S]ubject matter jurisdiction cannot be conferred by waiver, estoppel, consent or agreement, express or implied,” Owen, supra, p. 148, n. 27.
There are inherent dangers to accept jurisdiction by agreement of the parties absent an evidentiary hearing. See, Subaqueous Exploration and Archaeology, Ltd. where the court was misled by a conman. The shipwrecks identities were a fraud.
Judicial opinions made without requisite jurisdiction are merely advisory opinions which are not allowed according to Article Three, Section 2 of the Constitution. The Sea Hunt decision may well be void and not to be relied upon. Owen, supra, p. 179.
Rule 11(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require:
Representations to the Court. By presenting to the court a pleading, written motion, or other paper—whether by signing, filing, submitting, or later advocating it—an attorney or unrepresented party certifies that to the best of the person’s knowledge, information, and belief, formed after an inquiry reasonable under the circumstances, and
(c) Advisory Committee Notes 1993 “a litigant’s obligations with respect to the contents of these papers are not measured solely as of the time they are filed with or submitted to the court, but include reaffirming to the court and advocating positions contained in those pleadings and motions after learning that they cease to have any merit.”
Admiralty Rule C(b) requires in an in rem action that the Complaint “describe with reasonable particularity the property that is the subject of the action.” There were no particulars that support the notion that Spanish shipwrecks had been found within the six square miles requested by Sea Hunt. Sea Hunt declared that they had invested substantial time, money, and effort in researching the history of the Shipwrecked vessels in searching for their artifacts…” The truth is they ignored the most valuable information provided to them by others: the 1943 plat of Assateague and the testimony of Lt. Clemente who witnessed the sinking of the Juno.
On November 17, 2000, Sea Hunt complied with Rule 11 by filing a Rule 60 (b)(6) motion for clarification after the 4th Circuit Judgment and Opinion.” Sea Hunt declared:
“The record is clear that the parties and the Court relied on supposition, conjecture, and speculation when referring to the unidentified vessels.” “[T]he Court granted the request of the Kingdom of Spain for an advisory opinion seeking a ruling on ‘legal principles’ regardless where the Juno came to rest…This Court cannot and should not adjudicate in rem claims of an intervening claimant [Spain] as to a vessel which the intervenor contends has not been found. This is a hornbook principle of admiralty law and plain common sense.”
James Goold for Spain then told the Court Sea Hunt’s latest filing was “outrageous bad faith.” He had complained that Sea Hunt should not be able to change its mind on discovery. Goold demanded the right to ask for sanctions. He was not going to let Sea Hunt recant their allegations of March 11, 1998, that initiated the suit. Goold then reminded the court that the artifacts included Spanish coins dated 1734, 1740, 1741, and 1799, “all of which he said matched the 1750 sinking of La Galga and the 1802 sinking of the Juno. For all of its evasion and obfuscation, Sea Hunt has never as much as hinted that there is any other Spanish vessel in the area it examined,” argued Goold. Nowhere in the District Court proceeding is their evidence that Spain, the Department of Justice, or the Commonwealth of Virginia advised the court that Spanish coins could come from any shipwreck. It should be noted that the coins were found nine miles from the “Galga” site.
On July 20, 1999, after the District Court decision, I alerted the Spanish Embassy to tell them that Spanish coins could come from any shipwreck and I included my report of 1983 and that this information had previously been shared with the federal government and various historical agencies. The Embassy did not reply to my offer to help. It is not known if Spain shared my findings with their attorney or the Department of Justice. On July 23, 2000, cross appeals of the District Court decision were filed by Sea Hunt and Spain. The Department of Justice filed several amicus briefs on behalf of Spain. The 4th Circuit decision had been docketed July 21, 2000, awarding both shipwrecks to Spain. A petition for certiorari was filed with the Supreme Court on October 19, 2000, by Sea Hunt and the Commonwealth of Virginia. The petition was denied on February 20, 2001. Between November 2000 and August 3, 2001, the Court heard motions and testimony on Sea Hunt’s claim for salvage rights on the Juno and the desire of Spain to force Sea Hunt and Virginia to turn over the artifacts that had been recovered.
On March 16, 2001, “The Court is faced with the problem that, in reading through this very thick file, that there is really no – been any statement made by Sea Hunt positively this stuff came from Juno or these artifacts came from Juno or La Galga.”
Spain has been invited yet again by another government agency to get involved in these Spanish shipwrecks. The USFWS has denied this author’s request for his archaeologists to conduct magnetic testing on the site he has pinpointed within the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge for La Galga. It has been made clear that the ultimate goal is a nomination to the National Register and a museum display. That denial comes from Spain’s insistence that La Galga still belongs to them. The USFWS has surrendered control over a portion of Assateague Island without the Department of Interior getting permission from Congress. The evidence that should have been presented in the Sea Hunt court is deemed off limits.
In 1976, Congress passed the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act (FSIA) which suggests that the U.S. ownership of La Galga cannot be challenged by Spain: §1605(a)(4): “A foreign state shall not be immune from the jurisdiction of courts of the United States or of the States in any case in which rights in property in the United States acquired by succession or gift or rights in immovable property situated in the United States are in issue.” The 1943 condemnation of Assateague which includes La Galga stands.
U.S. Constitution Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2:
The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.
No appropriation of public lands may be made for any purpose except by authority of Congress.
Verification of what lies buried on Assateague can only lead a to National Register nomination and a museum display. That was the goal of the Department of Interior in 2002. That is not the case today.
John L. Amrhein, pro se