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Utahns search for sunken treasure off Key West

KEY WEST, Florida (ABC 4 News) - Cross Marine Projects of American Fork is perhaps on the verge of it's biggest find to date. It's a find that could change history and make some people very rich.
KEY WEST, Florida (ABC 4 News) - Cross Marine Projects of American Fork likes to get its feet wet. The company has gained an global reputation for finding things in lakes and oceans - things that other people have lost.

Cross is perhaps on the verge of it's biggest find to date. It's a find that could change history and make some people very rich.

A Cross team was recently in Key West, Florida. They used the tourist Mecca to stage an exploration of sea floor about 10 miles South. Their objective: a Spanish ship that sank nearly four centuries ago.

They believe the ship might have been part of a fleet heading to Spain in 1622 with New World treasure.  Off the Florida Keys the fleet ran headlong into a hurricane.

The most famous of that fleet, Nuestra Senora de Atocha and Santa Margarita, were discovered in the mid 1980's by treasure hunter Mel Fisher. The gold and silver he brought up was worth an estimated $450 million.

Fisher found parts of the ships in 60 to 80 feet of water. That meant relatively easy dives.

But the Cross team worked in 350 feet of water. That is a dangerous depth for divers and requires special training and equipment.

Jon Cross has both. Still, at such a depth, he could stay on the bottom for only a few minutes followed by hours on the surface in a decompression chamber. 

When you're searching a two square mile area with little idea of what you'll find, sending down a diver is just not worth the expense or the risk. "That's where ROV's are very handy," explained Jon Cross. "If you lose an ROV it's a very sad moment because it's a lot of money, but everyone's still going home to their families."

The ROV -- Remotely Operated Vehicle -- that Jon will pilot is powered by twin thrust fans. It has high intensity lights and high definition cameras. It can go down as far as 1,000 feet and stay as long as needed.

But as the ROV goes in the water, it's clear this will not be an easy mission.

Two other companies have tried and failed to get closer looks at any of the intriguing shapes found by sonar.

On this day, the surface is rough and there are strong currents below that constantly push the ROV and test Jon's skills. "Once you get into a current it's like you're fighting against a river. And the second you start to turn, the ROV will spin on you and do a 360 degree. The current will grab it and try to send it off in some random direction," said Jon.

But after hours of struggling to keep the ROV on course, the team is rewarded with the first object coming into view on the otherwise barren ocean floor. Jon remembers, "Your heart just stops for a minute because you don't know what it is."

At first glance the object looks like a crusted log, but as the ROV pivots to look at one end it's camera sees a rectangular slot typical of a ship's mast.

Now the discoveries come relatively quickly. After the mast, two cannons come into view. Flying the ROV, Jon Cross takes it over the top and looks down the barrels of both.

"We're very, very excited about what the prospects are," said Jim Cross, President of Cross Marine.

Jim Cross said the decoration around the barrel of one cannon was consistent with a Spanish ship of that period. However, he's intrigued by the other barrel - it's octagonal. That doesn't fit. "We don't have all of the answers yet, but this is a real mystery." That's why Jim signed onto the project, for the mystery and the history.

"The captains of the Atocha and Margarita both wrote in their logs that were recovered -- they saw two ships turn over and go down in deep water. And this is the deep water. Where the Atocha and Margarita were in about 80 feet of water, these were in 350 of water, so it matches," Jim said. "And the world changed because of that."

Spain, already strapped for cash because of the 30 Years War and rebellious colonies, desperately needed the treasure from Atocha and Margarita to pay the bills. Although some of the treasure of the Margarita would be salvaged eventually, Spain never recovered from the financial blow and it's empire in the Americas and elsewhere began to slip away.  History was changed.

By all accounts, those two ships carried most of the treasure of the 28 ship fleet. Still, six others also sank in the hurricane -- at least some of them in deep water away from the coral reefs. Jim Cross believes he has found at least one of those other, lost ships of the fleet.

Cross is quick to point out they are still a long way from doing any serious salvage.

Still, back in Mel Fisher's time, such a project would have been all but impossible.

With new technology, what was lost to the deep is now within reach.
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