Captain Robert Mayne, President of Aqua Quest International, talks with Opportunist’s Managing Editor Leslie Stone about his first discovery of sunken treasure, his company’s profit centers and why he feels the real treasure in shipwrecks lies in their historical value.
Robert “Bob” Mayne’s fascination with underwater exploration dates back to childhood, when he would go spear fishing off the coast of Cape Cod. That is where, at age 16, he found his first sunken treasure: a 150-pound bronze ship’s bell cast by an apprentice of Paul Revere.
Although he has spent much of the last four decades searching for ancient shipwrecks, the possibility of finding instant wealth beneath the sea is not what drives him. “Historical values are very important,” he says. “What people don’t understand is every single shipwreck is not only an economic story but also a tragic human story.”
According to Mayne, the loss of life sometimes has an impact on the course of history. “Take Napoleon’s lost payroll ship, for example. It set sail from France in 1802, with 400 of the best Polish mercenary soldiers on board, but never arrived at Monte Cristi in the Dominican Republic. Napoleon made a deal with the king of Poland in which mercenary soldiers were sent to fight France’s wars in exchange for the sovereignty of Poland. The soldiers were well paid, and viewed as heroes at home. They were planning to quell the slavery revolt in Haiti, but neither the ship nor its payroll ever arrived and all the other soldiers in Haiti abandoned the post. Haiti was a big cash cow for Napoleon. The Louisiana Purchase might never have taken place—and we might be speaking French in this country today—if it weren’t for this shipwreck and the loss of Haiti.” [Laughs]
Mayne’s goal with Aqua Quest International is to preserve the historical integrity of a project as much as its wealth-generating prospects. “This disarms archaeologists who try to accuse us of being treasure hunters,” he says. “I’m very resourceful and innovative and that’s what it takes to find these wrecks and do recovery. This is not a crapshoot; it’s not a treasure hunt—it’s a very well thought out and calculated process.”
Opportunist: Take us back, if you will, to the day you discovered that ship’s bell.
Bob Mayne: I enjoyed diving down to this huge submerged rock with caves inside and beautiful fish around it. A buoy identified the rock as a navigation hazard because the top of it was only five feet below the surface. Each summer when I would go out on my 17-foot wooden skiff, I noticed the buoy in a slightly different position because it was pulled out for repainting each fall and put back each spring. My cousin Denny and I were doing our first dive of the season and the current was strong, visibility was poor and I got swept off course. Suddenly, about five feet away, I saw this huge bell half buried in the sand. I was so excited my heart was pounding. I swam to the surface, grabbed a huge piece of rope from my boat and jumped back into the water. I summoned Denny, and we tied the rope around the bell and managed to get it up to the surface only to discover that it was a lot heavier when it hit the air. [Laughs] Waves were kicking up and we were afraid the weight would cause the boat to swamp, so we descended and laid it back down. I tied a life jacket to it, to mark the spot, and we went home to refill our tanks. We assembled a tool made out of a four-by-four post and a trailer winch and headed back out to find the bell … but it was gone.
After searching for two summers, I figured somebody else got the bell and stopped looking. Then, three years after I originally saw it, I was on my first dive of the season when, once again, I was swept away … and bang, there it was! I was able to recover the bell that time, and a collector friend of my dad’s offered me $2,000 for it. That was a lot of money in the early ‘70s, but I thought Nah, I don’t want to sell it. It was cast by Henry N. Hooper & Co. in Boston in 1856, and it’s an incredible piece of history. I like to joke that I haven’t been right since that first discovery. [Laughs]
Opportunist: Is that when you decided to turn treasure hunting into a career?
Bob Mayne: The excitement of underwater finds and recovering artifacts certainly bit me, but what brought me full circle was an expedition I made with Oceans Bounty Ltd. in 1985. We were looking for the Maravilla, one of the richest Spanish galleons ever lost at sea. I raised about $1.5 million for the project, but we started losing money because one of the principals was a con artist who was planting treasure. I was determined to save the project—‘necessity is the mother of invention,’ as they say—so I mortgaged my home on Cape Cod and bought Lady Sarah, the vessel we were leasing for the project, for $100,000 and renamed her Aqua Quest.
Opportunist: Did your efforts pay off?
Bob Mayne: After a period of time I realized this is expensive. Fuel for a 5,000-gallon tank can be costly. Someone told me the real gold rush was in natural sea sponges off the Gulf Coast of Florida. I had never been to this neat little Greek community called Tarpon Springs, so I drove down and met with a Greek sponge diver named Arty. I told him I had a boat on the other coast and he said I could definitely make money because sponges had gone from $1.50 a sponge to $8 a sponge. So I brought the Aqua Quest over, along with a couple of my brothers, and we started diving for sponges. The older Greek divers called us the ‘Blondie Boys,’ and we carved a nice niche for ourselves. It was the toughest and dirtiest work I’d ever done. That was about 25 years ago, and I’ve lived in Tarpon Springs and kept my toes in the salvage shipwreck business ever since.
Opportunist: Your website says: ‘the projected monetary value of the shipwreck resources lost beneath the sea exceeds the total value of the world’s currencies as they exist today.’ Is that possible?
Bob Mayne: After some 3,000 years of seafaring, it stands to reason that if 50 percent of all cargo and valuables were lost at sea it would exceed today’s value. A friend of mine named Peter Throckmorton, known to many as the ‘Father of Marine Archaeology,’ was the first to propose that idea. He did underwater exploration off the coast of Turkey in the 1950s. It’s kind of a seat-of-the pants calculation, but it’s certainly a thought provoking exercise in the untold riches remaining on the ocean floor.
Opportunist: Does the Archives of Seville list every ship that was lost at sea?
Bob Mayne: The Archives of the Indies, in Seville, Spain, lists every Spanish ship that went down. Every ship had three manifests. El Capitan, the leader of the fleet, held one, another was on the vessel itself and one stayed behind so if ships sank they would always have a record. To my knowledge there are rooms filled with unopened legajos—bundles of documents—detailing shipwrecks that have yet to be interpreted and recorded. And then we have to consider the contraband, or undocumented treasure, which is often worth more. It’s incredible.
Opportunist: What have you learned about treasure hunting after all these years?
Bob Mayne: That the concept is a broken and dysfunctional business model. I never saw it work, but I saw a lot of people lose a lot of money. I always believed it could be done in a way that makes money and skirts the problems.
Opportunist: How so?
Bob Mayne: When your cash flow is derived from finding and selling treasure, you’re overlooking all the ancillary opportunities to generate cash flow. People are stepping over the real gold, which is the history, the archaeology and the story of the shipwreck. From an educational aspect, it’s an incredible and compelling opportunity. About two and a half years ago I made a decision to do this right.
Opportunist: What is Aqua Quest’s business model and how does it stack up against the competition?
Bob Mayne: The basic core and beauty of the company and the structure that we have is based on our different profit centers. Historical values are very important to us, and we plan to share them in museums and on TV, through our wholly owned Aqua Quest Films subsidiary. We are also launching some educational programs at the Florida Institute of Technology. FIT is designing archaeological coursework and co-publishing a course manual with us on ocean engineering projects.
We make our money going after the easier, modern jobs while hunting for historical shipwrecks. I would never talk badly about a competitor, but I will say the main difference between them and us is that we are small and super-efficient in the work we do. We don’t bet the ranch on finding big treasure, and our costs are 10 percent of our competitors’ costs. For example, the last three winters we did salvage work of abandoned communication cables off the Eastern Seaboard. We made great money—our record so far is 7,500 feet of cable in one day. The copper has to be stripped out, and it can gross about $2 a foot, so that’s $15,000 for one day’s work. We hired a crew and paid them by the piece to do the stripping. Each guy took home $450 per day.
In my living room are a few relics recovered from a World War II freighter ship that was sunk off the coast of Virginia by a German U-boat in 1942. It was carrying munitions to England before the U.S. entered the war, and we recovered 22,000 pounds of lead ingots in just three days of diving. That was right before Hurricane Sandy and we haven’t returned to that wreck yet, but there is much more lead we can get out of it.
New projects are continually coming to us. We have arrangements with fishermen who bring us information on locations and we investigate them. There is also a lot of magnetometer work for us, and we have a system that allows us to double the speed at which we can do a magnetometer survey.
I take our total annual overhead and operating costs and divide it by hours of productivity—diving, recovery and underwater surveying—and I doubt anybody in the industry can come close to what we achieve. The quality of our team of experts and our innovative techniques, where we literally double our efficiency, is a model that few can compete with. I believe we have the ability to achieve longevity in this business.
Opportunist: Is everyone on your team as experienced as you are?
Bob Mayne: We have an amazing team of people who are at the top of their field in research, locating sites, salvage, archaeology and media. Our Chief Archivist, Dr. Eugene Lyons, found the archival research that led the late Mel Fisher to the legendary Atocha. We have been friends for nearly 20 years. Without Gene’s research, Fisher’s team never would have found that $450 million treasure. He became a master of reading and interpreting archaic documents on colonial era Spanish shipwrecks while working on his doctorate. Recently, Gene brought us 400 pages of documents pertaining to another series of shipwrecks that we are reviewing.
Rick Horgan, our undersea research expert, is the best side-scan specialist in the country. We met in 1994 when he worked for a firm called Oceaneering. When the U.S. Navy and Air Force can’t find something, Rick is their ‘Mr. Fix It.’ He’s a humble guy, so I’m always bragging about him. When John F. Kennedy Jr.’s plane went down in 1999, they canvassed the area and couldn’t locate it for about nine days. So they flew Rick in by helicopter and took him down to the ship’s sonar room to examine images of their targets. He clicked through sonar images for about 15 minutes and said, ‘I’m looking at your airplane.’ When someone else said the image was just a pile of rock, he asked if they’d put a diver on it yet. According to their logbook they hadn’t, so they sent a dive team down and, sure enough, it was the plane. Rick is my right arm guy and a huge part of our team.
Dr. Robert Baer heads our archaeology team. He was educated at Oxford and has participated in over 200 expeditions, and he is putting together courses on marine archaeology basics—the why and how we do what we do, as well as on underwater metal detecting and locating items and setting up grids to record the position, etc.
We have some great people on our board of advisors. Harold J. Levy, an entertainment attorney in Hollywood for 35 years, and Michael McCabe, a world-class cinematographer, are also part of our team. My brother Steven is our chief operating officer. He’s a great businessman and an excellent diver who shares my passion. John Lux, our securities attorney, handles all of our legal work and contracts.
Opportunist: Without giving away trade secrets, can you share some of Aqua Quest’s other projects?
Bob Mayne: We are working a commodity shipwreck in 120 feet of deep water off the coast of Cape Fear, North Carolina. This vessel was caught in a hurricane while sailing from Cuba in 1924. Fortunately, there was no loss of life but the cargo is estimated to include between 2,000 to 4,000 tons of high-grade copper ore that is not seen today. We have an admiralty claim on that one, but we got hammered with unseasonably bad weather last fall. It’s a novelty, and I believe a mining company will buy it from us. They’re interested in the story because of the documentary film we are producing.
Opportunist: Tell us about your museum.
Bob Mayne: We have created an incredible 125-foot replica of a Spanish galleon designed specifically as a floating museum. We will sail into ports like New York City or Boston Harbor—a promotional team will have arrived beforehand—and showcase some of the artifacts and treasure we find on various expeditions. Depending on the venue, we will spend anywhere from five to 14 days in each location and then move to the next harbor. We believe this will be extraordinarily popular. Mel Fisher told me he made more money with his museum than all the treasure he ever found. In fairness to that concept, you have to understand that with his business model he kept selling percentages of the treasure. It took him 18 years to find the Atocha, and some estimate he had sold 150 percent of his treasure. So he may not have pocketed very much.
Opportunist: Will your Aqua Quest Films subsidiary be a full-scale production company?
Bob Mayne: We believe our films will become one of our greatest resources, as long as we maintain the film rights and license them out. With our current shipwreck projects we already have enough to produce 100 episodes. Our fees will likely be based on a percentage of the advertising revenue, so the more popular the show the more ad revenue it will generate. I see that as a massive asset of Aqua Quest in the future.
Opportunist: What else is planned for 2014?
Bob Mayne: We just acquired three more vessels and we now own two 65-foot workboats, a 52-foot survey salvage boat and a beautiful 82-foot steel sailboat that is almost a tall ship. The top of the mast is 100 feet above the water line. We keep a couple of bunks on board for film crews and also use it as a floating hotel for some of the remote locations we are working.
We have done the research on a shipwreck that we believe may hold up to $50 million in gold coins, and we plan to locate it this spring. We also plan to complete our copper ore salvage, as well as a minimum of three documentary films this year. We will also begin our South China Sea project, which, according to original archival searches, consists of three vessels that could prove very lucrative.
I’m flying to Honduras very soon to meet with a doctor who has been trying to help young lobster divers who are getting crippled from the bends. Their employers use horribly dangerous diving practices with no gauges, so their air runs out and they struggle to reach the surface. More than 4,000 have been permanently crippled. It’s almost genocide. This doctor has designed special wheelchairs for rough terrain, and I’m going to look into getting funding from end users like Red Lobster. It’s not rocket science, but education is all it will take to fix it.
We are also in talks with another group in Honduras that is allowing us to come in and do rescue archaeology. Laws of Honduras say anything that comes out of Honduras is patrimony of the country. Everything we recover belongs to them; however, we retain hold in our possession for 20 years. This is where our idea for the floating museum came from, so we are going to use these artifacts in our museum. We will also become a cultural ambassador to the country of Honduras because we will find artifacts, bring them to the surface and record them and put them on display. What I love about our Honduran model is that none of the treasure or artifacts will be sold. We will monetize and pay for the project through our creativity and our educational and film interests.
Opportunist: Where do you see the company in five years?
Bob Mayne: I see us being a $250 million company within two years, and a $1 billion company within five years. One of the great resources we have is that I am a veteran of the battle of making the books meet at the end of the year in a tough business. I am a very good money manager who knows when to pinch and when to spend.
Opportunist: Are you hopeful that one day you’ll discover a treasure trove that rivals other shipwrecks?
Bob Mayne: Ultimately, yes. I believe we will find that major shipwreck that will yield hundreds of millions of dollars in treasure and value. In the meantime, my work is exciting and I’m having fun. When the Florida Lottery jackpot recently grew to hundreds of millions of dollars, my brother Johnny asked me what I would do if I won. Then he hesitated for a moment and said, ‘Oh, never mind. I know what you would do … exactly what you’re doing right now!’ He’s right. I might buy a prettier boat and some brand-new underwater toys but that wouldn’t change my ambition for Aqua Quest.
Leslie Stone is an award-winning writer/editor with more than two decades of experience covering business, finance and lifestyle issues for newspapers, magazines and online publications. Originally from Virginia, she currently resides in Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @lescstone.
Photographs: Michael McCabe
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