For National Maritime Day: Whose Turf is Under the Surf?

OK, so you want to look for sunken treasure – be it monetary, historical, or both. (Or you find out someone else is doing it, you don’t think they should, and you want to see if you can stop them).

You’re in luck, sort of.

The bad news for underwater artifact-hunters is that unless the body of water is completely surrounded by private land, you’ll probably have to get permits from, comply with the regulations of, and possibly split the loot with, some government or other. Even if it is on private land, some environmental laws may still restrict what you can do. The good news (for both hunters and their opponents) is that now it’s well settled which governments have jurisdiction where. This issue was hotly contested between the coastal states and the federal government in the two-decade U.S. v. Florida series of cases.

I’ve prepared a diagram* that shows the types and extents of underwater government jurisdiction in the United States. Click the thumbnail image below to enlarge it:

*All clip-art used by permission of Jupiter Images (subscription when the images were downloaded, + non-commercial use).

Curse of the Atocha Part 2: Mosquitoes Among the Alligators

As you’ll have seen in Part 1, the Atocha shipwreck salvage story is a humdinger. It has it all: adventure, wealth, greed, betrayal, violence . . . constitutional interpretation . . . civil procedure . . .

When you’re up to your a** in alligators (or allegations, or litigators), you may not notice the mosquitoes right away, but they’re biting you all the same. While all the federal-court Atocha lawsuits were working their way to the Supreme Court and back, Treasure Salvors, Inc. (TSI) had several investor-contract disputes demanding its attention as well, mostly in state court. Most of theopinions were unpublished or outside the scope of my database subscriptions, and I welcome comments from anyone who knows more about them.

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Curse of the Atocha, Part 1: In Rem, Ad Nauseam

This is me in 1994 with treasure hunter Mel Fisher, who salvaged the wreck of the Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Mrs. Fisher customarily took pictures like these whenever a visitor to their Treasure Museum (now the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum) in Key West* bought a gold 8-reale coin (“piece of eight”) from the ship’s haul while she and Mel happened to be in town. That was what I’d just done; that’s my “I’ve been SCUBA diving all morning, wandering around in the sun all afternoon, and now I just spent a pretty big (for me) wad of cash” slightly poleaxed smile. That’s also one of the Atocha‘s gold chains around my neck (just for the picture); who knew the Spaniards of 1622 blinged themselves out like the rappers of 1985?

Not until ten years later, in law school, did I learn that this shipwreck was the centerpiece of a litigation train-wreck. There were too many lawsuits to describe in even one of my awfully-long posts, so I’m having to serialize. In stories, sunken and buried treasures are often cursed (I mean “with bad mojo,” not “by people trying unsuccessfully to find them”). But the usual curse symptoms are violent death, or insanity, or something similarly speedy and dramatic. Upon reflection, though, “a long, tangled string of lawsuits on whomsoever disturbs this place” is a pretty good curse.

And, like someone seeing a train wreck, I couldn’t look away.

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