- Historic Sites
The saga of Kip Wagner, the first modern American to grow rich from ancient Spanish treasure
October/november 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 6
One could never be sure, emphasized Wagner, that he had encompassed the whole area of a wreck. The violence of that fatal storm and the rough wave action that followed sometimes spread a ship’s remains far and wide. The site where the young divers found all those doubloons was a long way from Mel Fisher and his Salvors, but they were all working profitably on the same ship nevertheless. It was, too, a matter of luck, said Kip. Some people have it and some don’t. One of his divers, Del Long, had luck. Whenever he had a hunch, the others, if they knew what was good for them, followed it. He had just such a hunch one Sunday when all of them were together.
“I’ve got a feeling,” he said, “that we’re going to hit it big again soon- right over there,” and he indicated a place about nine hundred feet south of the spot where they were diving. Johnson and two of the others followed his directions and dived—and found a hundred and thirty golden coins four fathoms down. This was enough for them to agree that they should all dive next day even though it was Monday, not a usual day for activity en masse.
“We sailed at 8:48 A.M., and anchored a little over an hour later, about 1,000 feet offshore,” wrote Wagner. “Within 20 minutes Conkey came up with a gold doubloon. He had opened the floodgates to the most fantastic single day we have ever recorded. ” Wagner lately had suffered from a bad back and was taking it easy, but that day he could not resist joining the others. Visibility was good, forty or fifty feet in all directions. Conditions were perfect. The sands were dazzlingly white.
“And then I saw it—a sight every man should see just once in his life. The blaster had cut a hole about 30 feet in diameter, and there, in this vast jacket of the ocean floor, lay a carpet of gold; believe me, a carpet of gold! It was the most glorious picture one can imagine. … Off to one side, against a rock-coral formation, the coins, so help me, were even lying in neat stacks of three and four. The water magnification made it seem as though the entire bottom was lined with gold.”
The divers were all motionless for a space, overawed. When at last they moved, it was not to grab at the gold immediately: they went up to the Derelict and called down their friends, making sure everyone could see it before it was spoiled. There were so many coins that they scooped them up by handfuls, and loaded buckets to the brim with them. They were in mint condition, and most of them were the big eight-escudo size. All day long the divers poured a steady torrent of gold onto the deck of the Derelict .
“We were one tired bunch of divers when we finally knocked off at 5:20 that afternoon,” wrote Wagner, “but we had the comforting knowledge that we had recovered more treasure in one day than anyone in history—in recorded history at least. ” The total count, when they had made it and were finger-sore, with dazzled eyes, was 1,128 coins including 518 eight-escudo pieces, which in those days were valued at from one to three thousand dollars apiece.
It goes without saying that they found it impossible to go out the next few days: June 3 was the earliest they could dare the elements, and then they found only a few more gold coins—six, and five on June 4. So it went until they concluded that they had cleaned out the wreck of that particular hoard, which, they agreed, had almost certainly all been contained in one chest. Theorizing further, they decided that the place they had made the incredible find probably represented a portion of the ship that had broken away and been flung into the crevice between the first and second coral reefs. Cannon had been found nearby, but there was no ballast. No, the rest of the wreck was the site where they had found their first gold coins, the K’ang-hsi china, and the pieces of eight, among the ballast rocks. The divers worked out a chart of where the main part of the wreck might well be and then set to work to locate it with the magnetometer. A few days later, working by the chart, they anchored the Derelict over the deeper spot where, with luck, it would be found. Triumph! Within nine minutes the divers on their first trip brought up more silver wedges like those found in 1960: there were three of these. Nine more were found that day, as well as three clumps of silver coins, several hundred other pieces of eight, and ten silver disks of varying thickness, weighing from 44 to 105 pounds apiece.
In addition they salvaged a mystery object, a round-bottomed bottle, still sealed and still containing some sort of liquid. But it was the amount of silver they now found that made the location remarkable. They had recovered less in all of 1960 and 1961 than they now carried out of the sea bed in one day. The tally on the following day was several thousand loose silver coins. On June 14 there were so many that they simply weighed instead of counting them—665 pounds of coinage. There were also twelve more silver wedges, eight more of the heavy metal disks, two silver “biscuit-shaped chunks,” and a clump of coins.
From then on, as Wagner said, it got damn near ridiculous. In about a week they had brought up nearly a ton of pieces of eight alone. There were so many that Bob Johnson told the boys to skip picking up loose coins and concentrate on finding bars, disks, wedges, and other large items. It was a long time since Kip Wagner had excitedly found his first black piece of eight on the beach.