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Many morning between eight and nine, as the rest of the country heads for work, 40-year-old Art McKee of Treasure Harbor, Florida, is 15 feet underwater riding on the prongs of an anchor into his own peculiar work world. Trailing almost weightlessly over the bottom, like an oversize fish bait, is close to the average man's ideal of a cool, clean and quiet way of getting?or being dragged?to work. For McKee, the country's foremost shipwreck explorer, anchor riding is sometimes the only means of finding the job he left yesterday, particularly in rough water when visibility is poor. On those days McKee gets such a ride as no jostled commuter should ever suffer. "Come down hard on a fluke when it is coming up," says McKee, "and you really feel like fish bait."
Once he has found his wrecksite, McKee spends the rest of the day, interrupted by a 15-minute break topside to eat and dry out his water-shriveled skin, rigging equipment and picking into the past?two or three centuries, maybe more.
A GREEN WATER WORLD
It is a strange workday in a green water world, amid an odd crowd of hangers-on. At one wreck the same mutton snapper, 10 pounds of mute and stupid curiosity, hangs motionless day after day, watching over his shoulder. Sheeny baitfish school through his air bubbles. Towards afternoon mottled groupers emerge from the coral, a few joining the mutton snapper in a dumb appraisal of McKee's progress. Above him cero mackerel circle and never stop. Like a prowling office manager whose very look bespeaks evil, a barracuda comes from nowhere, darts off, darts back, flashes a fine set of teeth, then as suddenly disappears. A hammerhead shark moves out of the green infinity in slow circles and withdraws. McKee gives each a glance, feels for the sheath knife on his hip and keeps on digging. At this point in his persistent enthusiasm for picking into history, McKee's intimates figure it would take a mermaid troop on bridled porpoises to bring him out of his crouch in the sand.
It can be rewarding work?that is, if you include among the worth-while rewards all relics and memorabilia in a vast range from 3,000-pound frigate cannons to fragments of an archaic chamber pot. In eight years, from 17 ancient wrecks, McKee has brought up 40 tons: a 17-foot, 2?-ton anchor; 18 cannons; over 400 cannonballs; flintlocks, pistols and swords; gold doubloons; silver pieces-of-eight; wine-jug, rum-bottle and china-plate fragments; tackle blocks; pewter plates and cups; belt and shoe buckles and worn boot heels; cutlery, inkwells, figurines and religious medals; copper and silver ingots; a ton of lead; gold rings, earrings and brooches; human teeth, beef bones and elephant tusks. These are the rewards which may be struck suddenly in quantity or singly after hours of hunting. "I don't know how much I've walked over and left down there," McKee says. "I used to be a pay diver, but this stuff gets you. It's history you can touch."
The bulk of McKee's recoveries, appraised intrinsically, would not fetch scrap-dealer prices. But as collector's items and as historical documentation the worth is often inestimable. The chief value even of the gold and silver lies not in the metal but in the circumstances under which it was found and the gap it might fill in a museum or important private collection.
After three centuries, during which hundreds of English, French and Spanish ships were trafficking, pirating, fighting and sinking in the Caribbean, popular fancy is inflamed most, of course, by the thought of gold, silver, and jewels of the East on the bottom. The world is full of dreamers who would go down and make a killing. It was just such a treasure fever boiling in someone else's blood that propelled McKee into his present career.
A MAN NAMED JACK
In the late 30s, Art McKee, a barrel-chested pay diver with a lean face and the orange hair of a Scotch-Irishman, was fighting a six-knot tide laying the Navy's underwater pipeline to Key West. On the edge of the old Spanish Main, this tip of Florida naturally had a double share of wild-eyed treasure zealots. "Ten or 15 a year, they came up with a crazy look," McKee remembers. "They know where it is. You dive for it, they'd say, and split 50-50. I'd tell them to go away. I was making good money." Then in 1938 one of them?a New Yorker who, possibly because of revenue collectors, preferred to be known as plain "Jack"?was more convincing: McKee was guaranteed one thousand dollars to dive for silver bars hidden in pitch on a Spanish galleon. It was a pushover job?a reef in shallow, glass-clear water.
ROUND STONES AND CANNON