It sounds like something out of a Hollywood film.
During a space flight around the earth in 1963 to search for Russian nuclear sites, astronaut Gordon Cooper’s equipment picks up smaller metal objects out in the Caribbean Sea.
They aren’t large enough to be nuclear sites, and they’re mostly out in shallow water. Cooper thinks they might be shipwrecks, and he writes them down for future reference.
Cooper spends subsequent decades consulting historic and geographical records and scouting the areas, revealing the exact sites of what he believes to be wrecks, discovering details like the names of the ships transposing the coordinates onto a sea chart.
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Before he dies, Cooper bequeaths all his notes to close friend and professional treasure hunter Darrell Miklos.
It becomes Miklos’ duty to follow up on Cooper’s work and follow a treasure map from space that could lead to serious riches sunk beneath the waves.
But this isn’t a film – it’s a documentary series.
Darrell Miklos has been associated with the professional salvage industry for the past 45 years. His entry to the business came through his treasure hunting father Roger, who had him combing beaches for old coins as a seven-year-old.
He met astronaut Cooper in the green room of a television show he’d appeared on alongside Roger Miklos.
“I was awe-struck by his presence because I hadn’t met an astronaut before,” Miklos recalls.
The pair met infrequently over the next 35 years, but reconnected on one of his father’s expeditions in the Bahamas. When the treasure hunt didn’t pan out, Miklos returned to California with Cooper and the two shared an office space, where they bonded.
“He was such a dear friend and he was almost like a father figure to me because my relationship with my dad is kind of estranged, and he filled a lot of the gaps that my dad wasn’t able to,” he says.
Before Cooper died, he revealed the extent of his research into the sites he’d spotted in space to Miklos.
“I knew he was getting ill and he knew it, and before his passing he sat me down and said, ‘Look Darrell, I’ve got all these files,’ – I’d only seen a portion of them – he sat me down and he said ‘If anything ever happens to me, just make sure you finish what we started here.’”
“I feel like it’s my duty to do this for him. Not only that but we shared the passion, and I’m equally as passionate about it as he was.”
That passion is crucial to what Miklos does. Through his father he gained firsthand experience of what a complicated business treasure hunting is.
It’s not enough just to find a wreck. You need to get the correct permits, put together a crew, and make sure any treasure is extracted in a way that won’t upset the archaeological community.
Miklos says obtaining the permit is the most difficult part of the process and basically involves brokering a deal with the government of the host country to split whatever treasure is salvaged.
“I want to do it with respect to the host countries, I want to follow through and make historical recoveries and tell a story about the history of these countries, because a lot of this stuff would be lost forever if it wasn’t for the information we have.
“We’re able to share that with the world and that makes me feel happy, and I think Gordon would be happy with it as well,” Miklos says.
Usually all the wooden parts of the old ships have totally decomposed, leaving just a pile of metal parts buried under sand on the sea floor. Once Miklos finally gets around to actually extracting material from the sites, there’s no guarantee it will have commercial value.
“Once we get into the excavation stage, it’s kind of like a box of chocolates as they say, you never know what you’re going to get. I hate to steal that phrase but it’s one of my favourite phrases,” Miklos says.
There is money to me made, however, with some shipwrecks uncovered in recent years yielding hundreds of millions of dollars in treasure.
Miklos says a whole industry operates out of Florida, scouring the Caribbean for lost ships from the Spanish colonial era.
With so many competitors, isn’t he worried broadcasting his material and methods might lead to someone pinching the treasure out from under his nose?
“I’ve thought about that, it was one of my hardest decisions. A lot of people think I’m just doing this to get myself on TV and I truly am not, because one of the things that I had to battle with are, what are the advantages of having this documented,” Miklos says.
“It adds safely to it, because if someone is going to try and steal a wreck site out from under us, if we’re lucky enough to find something of commercial value and large historical value, if we’re documenting it, then they’re going to be caught on film trying to steal it from us. In a sense there’s a big relief as far as security goes.”