SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
October 04, 1954
Fascinated by all the odd relics of shipwrecks, a veteran explorer works six hours a day below, nearly drowns once a week, and meets some really queer fish
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October 04, 1954

The Green Water World Of Art Mckee

Fascinated by all the odd relics of shipwrecks, a veteran explorer works six hours a day below, nearly drowns once a week, and meets some really queer fish

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But on his first look around, McKee was utterly disappointed. He hadn't expected an intact hull?he knew too much for that. But there was almost nothing. A stretch of round stones and two coral-encrusted cannons. That was all.

Even McKee, for all his experience, was not allowing for some very considerable factors. For one, when a ship strikes a reef, it may start to break up, reel drunkenly clear, losing cargo with each roll, until it finally founders. Rather than a compact site, it may leave a trail of litter. Moreover, little of ship or cargo will withstand the corrosive chemistry of the sea. Drifting sand and encrusting coral will preserve the shape of a relic but not always its physical composition. Lead and gold hold up well, but little else.

Ninety feet down the side of the reef where he found almost nothing on his first treasure dive, McKee could dimly see two more cannons. Five hours a day he swung a pick into the side of the reef. On the third day, near the bottom, a large sheet of coral broke off. "On the inside were marks like barrel staves," McKee recounts, "and it was black like pitch where it fell away. I swung the pick and hit a gold doubloon."


In chunks of pitch McKee brought up 1,600 gold and silver coins and got 63 of them as a bonus. It was a lucky wreck, at least until Employer Jack, cracking out whisky to celebrate on a return trip, fell down the ship's ladder and broke his leg. To coin collectors who later examined, coveted and bought some of McKee's bonus share, a broken leg was scarcely justice. In fact, hearing the end of the story, they would like to grind all of Jack into a fine paste. "Maybe income tax," McKee relates, "but anyway, Jack melted his coins." The whole treasure was never examined but it roughly figures that Jack had melted over $10,000 in coins to get about $2,000 in bullion. "I told that to the Miami coin collectors," says McKee, "and a great groan went up, like somebody missing an extra point in football."

After such a haul on his first old wreck, McKee proved he was only human. In the 40s he gradually forsook pay diving for treasure hunting, prowling from one wrecksite to another, most of them located on tips from local fishermen who had worked over round rocks but never figured them as the ballasts of old ships. In the past eight years McKee's interest has been transformed: as his treasure fever cooled at five fathoms and deeper, he became more and more fascinated by all the old relics. This does not mean that McKee, who has found more than $3,000 in silver on a single site, has ever, or will ever, step over an ingot to pick up a pewter inkwell. It is a normal transfer of interest. Like any man who ever went into an attic trunk looking for an heirloom to hock, he is bound to emerge with a whole armful of wonderful junk from the past.

As a man equally devoted to silver bars and inkwells, McKee is now president of the incorporated Museum of Sunken Treasure in the Keys and an ally of curators, numismatists and historians. Anyone whose treasure fever jumps, as McKee's once did, can easily cool off and possibly die of exhaustion by working below with him. Just getting things ready requires the brawn and savvy of an oil rigger and the agility of a gibbon. Until this year, McKee's digging was tedious, a half-blind groping in the silt stirred up by jetting the sand away with a water hose. Discovering that, after years when a wreck shook like a giant sifter in rough seas, the small relics have often trickled beneath the ballast and even under the hull planks, McKee sought some way of mining deep in the sand. This lead to a fanciful arrangement of suction pipe, ropes, anchors, buoys and a wire cage large enough for a family of orangutans. Now the sand is sucked away through the cage, which will trap anything as small as a button. However, in rough water the whole thing twists and fights to stay free, and McKee toils half a day, scrambling crablike across the bottom, crawling in and out of the cage, resetting anchors and guy ropes, and hanging upside down, feet entwined in one rope to give his weightless body traction to pull on another.


McKee usually has one or two helpers; but by midafternoon while he tunnels under the hull and pitches aside ballast rocks (which underwater is like shot-putting with bottle corks into a high wind), everyone else is done in. As night approaches, miles from home the crew fidgets. McKee's dock lies beyond a channel through one-foot shoals and jutting coral heads, haphazardly marked by Coke bottles, upended on stakes. Often McKee digs on below until the last light. "It's times like this," said Mate Wes Bradley, inching the boat through one dark night, "I wish he'd dissolve down there."

After a steady week underwater, McKee's skin has a bleached yellow cast, as if he had spent some time in the stomach of a whale. He will probably never dissolve. He has, however, run into equally improbable hazards. Though the big sharks have so far kept their distance, two six-footers once rushed him. "I didn't stab the shark," he apologizes as one might who destroyed a chickadee's nest. "The shark swam up and stuck itself on my knife. Pulled the knife out of my hand and shot away, streaming blood, the other shark chasing it, both turning over and over."

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