Mike DeMar reached into the sand 18 feet below the surface of the Florida Straits two weeks ago and plucked out a small, gold chalice that had tumbled from a foundering Spanish galleon almost 400 years ago.
After just two months in the treasure-hunting business, the 20-year-old Harrington, Wash., native was holding an artifact that could be worth $1 million.
The chalice, called a bernegal by the Spanish, may be the most valuable object to be retrieved from the wreck of the Santa Margarita since the 1980s, said Carol Tedesco, spokeswoman for Blue Water Ventures Key West.
Blue Water, a partner in the Santa Margarita salvage effort, hired DeMar in April.
Tedesco said exactly how much the chalice is worth will not be known until more research can be done into its origin. A herald resembling a coat of arms stamped on the relic’s bottom will provide some clues, she said.
DeMar said his first look at the crusty object in his hand did not suggest a historic find.
“I couldn’t see any gold,” he said.
Then a yellow reflection triggered an “I can’t believe it” moment that fulfilled a decade-old dream born watching divers on television. Along the way the dream got a boost from a father who bought him scuba gear and an Eastern Washington University professor who taught him archaeology.
The professor, John Dorwin, once worked for Mel Fisher, whose 1985 discovery of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and its fabulous cargo captured the world’s imagination. DeMar said Dorwin’s stories of that adventure, and his support, soon had him sending job applications to salvage companies.
Cliff DeMar, who now lives in Spokane, said he had no problem cutting his son loose.
“Michael was always a very ambitious boy,” he said.
When Mike said he wanted to go to Florida, “I told him to get the hell out of here,” Cliff DeMar said.
“He might as well go out there and see something else.”
Local attorney Guy Zajonc, who does legal work for partners Blue Water and Mel Fisher’s Treasures, said he was asked to check out DeMar. They met at Frank’s Diner.
Although DeMar was a certified scuba diver, Zajonc said, he did not have much experience. What he did have was passion, and years toiling at harvest.
“The kid knows what work is,” Zajonc said.
Divers working in the Florida Straits fight constant currents, he said, and must dive repeatedly – as many as 30 times a day – into holes created by redirected prop-wash.
The chalice was at the bottom of one of those holes.
DeMar said the crew aboard the Blue Water Rose is optimistic they will find more artifacts because the chalice was found on a debris line that has not been scoured by earlier divers.
The Santa Margarita and Atocha, sailing together in 1622, sank during a storm that scattered some of the cargo in one direction. But while the hulks sat on the bottom 30 miles off Key West, a second storm hit, pushing the chalice and other debris off in another direction.
DeMar, speaking by radio last week as the Blue Water Rose left harbor for the dive site, said moving to a world as wet as Eastern Washington is dry has so far been exhilarating.
“I couldn’t really ask for anything better,” he said.