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Tommy O’Brien... On Diving

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Diver Reveals Underwater Mysteries
[Dallas Suburban News]
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Tommy O'Brien at Mount Airy Lodge / Poconos

Scuba Teacher Searches in Winter for Gold Under Ocean...

When Tommy O’Brien isn’t teaching scuba diving and water skiing at Harvey’s Lake, he’s searching for sunken treasure in the Florida Keys.

O’Brien, 47, of Lower Demunds Road, Dallas, operates Harveys Lake Diving School at Sunset. “This is my 23 rd summer in the business, and I love it,” he told a reporter.

During the winter, O’Brien and his family live in a rented home in Key West, Fla. For the last two years during January, February and March, O’Brien has worked for Mel Fisher, president of Treasure Salvors, Inc., Key West.

Fisher has become known throughout the world for his recovery of sunken treasures from the shipwrecked Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank in the Florida Keys in 1622. However, he has been involved in a drawn-out legal tangle with the State of Florida which is attempting to claim a portion of the treasure, O’Brien said.

In his search, Fisher has lost a son, a daughter-in-law and a crew member, all of whom drowned.

So far, Fisher’s diving teams have recovered an estimated $2.3 million in ancient Spanish gold, silver, cannons, jewelry and artifacts, all believed to have been dumped on the ocean floor when the Atocha went down, the local diver said. He said Fisher has identified numerous items by comparing lettering, weights and mint marks with the ship’s manifest.

O’Brien then opened a desk drawer in his Harvey’s Lake office and took out what appeared to be a round and flat crusty stone of light and dark gray, something the average person probably would not even consider picking up off the sand. “That’s a silver piece of eight,” O’Brien said. “It’s not readily identified because it’s oxidized.”

 

Some Badly Oxidized

The coin was part of large amount of silver pieces of four and eight recovered from the Ocean floor by Fisher’s diving teams, O’Brien said. He said while some were badly oxidized, many in the center of the pile were in good condition and able to be identified by their markings.

Most of the treasure was found during the early 1970’s, before O’Brien joined in the search. However, the local diver was with Fisher’s crew early last year when they raised the stern anchor of the Atocha. “I helped secure the cables used to bring the anchor to the surface,” he said.

O’Brien said the anchor is more than 15 feet long and weighs 3,300 pounds. He said Long John Silver’s restaurant chain paid $10,000 to Fisher to use it for promotional purposes.

How does the crew go about its recovery operations? “Well, we’re working in 30 to 40 feet of water about 40 miles south of Key West,” O’Brien said. “That’s where the Arbutus, an old buoy tender, is permanently anchored and used as quarters.”

“We use a smaller boat (the Swordfish) for the diving team and have four or five platforms scattered over a wide area and anchored on reefs,” O’Brien explained. He said two men on the platform use a theodolite (similar to a surveyor’s transit) to align reference points for the diving crew. The Swordfish is equipped with a magnetometer which registers a signal when the boat passes over a metal object.

 

Zig-zag Pattern

The diving crew works in sort of a zig-zag pattern. “Each time the needle registers we drop a buoy at the spot,” O’Brien said. “After we work an area and drop 10 or so buoys, the divers go down to check the ocean floor.”

Since the area was used for bombing practice, O’Brien said, many times the divers go down only to find old bombs, steel cables and other junk. To avoid being fouled again by the same objects, the junk is raised and dumped miles away from the search area.

However, when the divers go down and find only a sandy bottom, a metal detector is taken down to pinpoint the exact location of the object. “That’s when we have to move 20-25 feet of sand,” O’Brien said.

For this job a unique device called a “mailbox” is used. The Dallas resident said the metal tubular device is worked from an anchored ship. He said prop wash is directed through the tube toward the ocean floor and the water pressure blows craters into the sand.

“When a diver spots an object in the crater, he moves in and grabs it, then uses the deflected prop wash to shoot him toward the surface,” O’Brien said. “That’s the part I like. It’s fun when you shoot to the surface.”

But it’s not all fun searching for sunken treasure. “It’s a full-time operation for Mel Fisher, O’Brien said. “I usually go out on a Wednesday or Thursday and stay until Sunday,” the local diving instructor said. “The work is very tiresome and discouraging more times than not.”

“Comparing the ship’s manifest to the recovered items, Mel estimates the biggest part of the fortune – 27 tons of gold and silver bars, coins, jewelry and other items – is still down there,” O’Brien explained. “I’m looking forward to going down next January, and I hope Mel hits the jackpot.”

O’Brien and his wife have five children. Sons Tom, 29 and Jim, 28, are charter captains off the Florida Keys. A daughter, Gloria, 25, lives in California. At home are Robert, 21, and Cindy, 7.

“We’re all divers,” O’Brien said. “My children have been diving since they were very young.”

O’Brien said he has been all over Harveys Lake and recovers old jugs and bottles and sometimes salvages engines from sunken motorboats. He has been called by police several times to recover drowning victims and by fishermen to recover equipment or gear which fell out of an overturned craft.

“I enjoy every minute of my work” he said. “It sure beats a 9 to 5.”

And take it from a man who has been there; Harveys Lake at its deepest point is only 95 feet and that point is filling with silt.

 

An article by Richard Walton, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader, July 7, 1978. Reprinted with permission.

 

Copyright 2006-2007 F. Charles Petrillo