Outside magazine, October 1994
Florida treasure hunters are as common as Kansas wheat, so it is not surprising that I, because of my specialized knowledge and diverse aquatic skills, receive many requests for assistance from this peculiar wing-nut fringe. Normally, I decline involvement. But a few years ago I did get involved, and the experience is probably why my attitude toward treasure hunters is jaundiced. I was enlisted by a man who convinced me that he had located a sunken World War I cargo ship that had carried pharmaceuticals, including, he said, several thousand vials of extremely valuable mercury. In those days, treatment for syphilis included mercury injected up the urethra--a gruesome ordeal called God's Revenge by abstainers and similarly uninteresting people. The treasure hunter told me that the ship and cargo had been sunk by a German U-boat while en route to South America and that all we had to do to become wealthy was salvage the mercury. "Mercury floats," he said. "We free the vials from the crates and they'll bob to the surface like toy ducks."
In hindsight, I might have asked why the War Department had been shipping mercury to Argentina when our randy doughboys were in France. But I didn't, and I soon found myself in 120 feet of water, fanning sand away from what we discovered to be crates of unexploded ordnance. If mercury was listed on the manifest, it was probably mercury fulminate, a chemical detonator, and not the medicinal mercury chloride--which, as I discovered later, would have been worthless anyway. It was terrifying being down there with corroded 70-year-old bombs, and while surfacing I sustained myself during the long decompression stops by contemplating the pure joy I'd take in thrashing that idiot treasure hunter if we ever made it back to shore.
Since then, as I said, my view of the pastime has been jaundiced. So recently, when my friend Stout called me with another treasure-hunting scheme, I was quick to refuse.
"But you don't even have to go in the water," he pressed. "We just need you to stay on shore and watch for alligators. And the night watchman, of course."
Alligators? Night watchmen? This was a fresh approach, and I decided to listen.
"You are an expert on alligators, aren't you?"
Actually, I am an expert on avoiding alligators, but when a compliment is offered, it is impolite to contest it.
"Expert?" I said. "Certainly. Everyone knows that."
"Then you're exactly the guy we need. And you'll get an equal share of the take."
Stout proceeded to tell me his scheme. Did I realize, he began, that there were more than 5,000 golf courses in Florida? And did I realize that each day tens of thousands of very expensive golf balls were dinked into lakes by golfers who, because they are prissy by nature, don't bother to go in after them? Because of this, Stout said, retrieving golf balls was a hugely profitable business.
"There are people around who have made millions just diving for golf balls," Stout said. "A good-quality ball costs two bucks or more new, and up to a buck used. It's nothing for one diver to take a thousand balls from a single lake. Understand, people who run country clubs aren't dumb, so they contract out the salvage rights and get a percentage of the profits back from the divers. It's a very nice, neat business, which is why ball divers keep the whole thing hushed up. Why share a sweet deal like that?"
Several hundred dollars or more for a day's work? Indeed. "So you've undercut those greedy spawn," I said, "and negotiated your own contract with a country club?"
Stout said, "Not yet. That's the next step, but first we need some operating capital. This is a very specialized kind of diving. Golf course lakes are a kind of a chemical soup filled with fertilizers and pesticides. You come out glowing, your chromosomes completely out of whack, unless you wear a full face mask and a drysuit. Total protection is imperative--and expensive. So to raise some cash we're going to dive a local golf course. At night.
"At night?" I repeated.
"The later the better."
Why didn't the man just come right out and say that he wanted me to help him pirate a country club? "Do you know what you're proposing?" I asked. "Trespassing, grand theft, not to mention probably breaking all acceptable standards of golf-course etiquette. That's what you have in mind?"
"Exactly," Stout replied. "Just you and me and one other guy. We divvy the profits."
It sounded wonderful. "Tell me more," I said.
Stout explained that our partner (I'll call him Carlson) already had a drysuit and knew the business, so he would do the actual diving. The two of them had thought long and hard about which of the dozens of local courses to hit and had settled on an exclusive club--I'll call it Royal Palm Beach View. "We want an upscale course," Stout said. "At a mobilehome-and-Chevy club, we'd get nothing but x-ed out Molitors and range balls. Worthless. But Beach View is strictly Titleist and Maxfli trade. The trash cans there are stuffed with Perrier bottles and new ball wrappers. Carlson checked. Hell, they warm up with Top Flites and leave them for the riffraff. And here's the best thing: No one has ever dived the lakes. The place has never been salvaged. And do you want to know why?"
I already knew why: alligators. Located on a posh vacation island, Beach View was acrawl with gators in part because the island's citizenry insisted that the club's lakes remain a sort of crocodilian breeding factory. Though not a golfer, I had once sneaked onto the course to fly-cast for landlocked tarpon. The memory was terrible to recall. Each time I hooked a tarpon, alligators would converge in a horrible feeding frenzy: nothing but flying scales and slapping tails in a froth of red. That one experience was enough. I considered Royal Palm Beach View a genuinely dangerous place, and it was my own private suspicion that more vacationing Ohioans and New Yorkers had disappeared on that course than had been lost at Gettysburg.
Stout said, "You ever hear of Eldorado? Well, Beach View is the Eldorado of golf ball hunters. They've been hitting primo balls into those lakes for decades, and no one has ever--ever--gone in after them. Now the question is..." Stout's tone changed from ebullient to serious. "The question is, can you take care of the gators so it's safe for Carlson to get in the water?"
Safe? Just playing 18 at Beach View was dangerous; attempting to dive it at night was insanity. "Does this guy Carlson have any dependents?" I asked.
"I don't think so," he said. "He's got a drysuit. That's all I need to know."
"We don't go in the water?"
"I'll wade around and mule balls out, and you'll stay on the bank as a kind of safety officer. Carlson says that we can expect to clear 1,000, maybe 1,500 bucks. Each. What do you think?"
Fifteen hundred dollars for one night's work--and all I had to do was stand on the bank. "In this case," I told my friend Stout, "I think the risk factor is perfectly acceptable."
Our first attempt to dive Beach View did not go well. Carlson, it turned out, was a whiner. "Why do I have to go first?" he kept asking as we lugged tanks, fins, and dive sacks the mile or so from our parking spot to one of the course's lakes. "I'm the one going in the water. You guys should at least lead the way to the lake."
"As safety officer," I explained to him, "it's important that I remain at the rear. If the worst happens, I need to be closest to the car so I can go for help."
But common sense couldn't dent Carlson's cowardly nature. He complained about having to carry his own gear, griped about how hot it was inside his drysuit.
"Gad!" Stout finally snapped at him. "Just be thankful you've got some protection from the mosquitoes. They're eating me alive!"
It was true. Mosquitoes had found us in swarms. Not that Carlson was concerned. The man cared only for his own comfort and safety. But it was when we finally came to a lake that he demonstrated just how self-absorbed he really was. I shone my flashlight over the water's surface. It was a typical Florida golf-course lake: longer than it was wide, with palm trees silhouetted at the edge. "See there?" I said to Carlson. "Not a single gator. Their eyes glow at night, so it's easy to tell." I switched off the light, hoping my enthusiasm would be contagious. "Piece of cake. Get your tank on, Carlson, and start handing up those golf balls!"
Carlson didn't budge. "They could be underwater," he blurted. "A big gator can stay underwater for hours at a time. Even I know that. I'm not going in there with any big gators."
Would there be no end to his sniveling? "OK, OK," I said, "I'll prove it's safe." Years ago, in some forgotten swamp, I had learned how to call gators to the surface of a lake. I now cupped my hands to my mouth and made a low, guttural sound--ye-UNK, UNK, UNK, ye-UNK-- and then shone the light again.
"Mother of God!" Carlson whispered. "Look at all the eyes!"
It was true. The lake had lighted up like a Christmas tree, the lights set in pairs and ruby red.
"Maybe they're frogs," Stout said helpfully. "Really big ones."
No, they were gators. Frogs wouldn't have survived half a second in this lake.
"I almost went in there!" Carlson said, sounding near tears. "I could have been eaten!"
True enough--so we spent the next hour lugging our gear around, checking the other lakes. The most promising was on the 14th fairway, a small water hazard without a tree fringe, and had no more than a half-dozen small gators cruising around. To demonstrate how safe it was, I took my shoes off and waded in up to my knees. But what little spirit Carlson possessed had been broken, and he demanded that we take him and his drysuit home.
"I guess that's the end of it," Stout said to me on the long hike back to the car.
I nudged closer to him so that only he could hear. "Not for us it isn't," I whispered. "When I got in that pond, do you know what I was walking on?" From my pocket I took a handful of golf balls and swept the flashlight across them: Titleist, Golden Bears, DTs, and Maxflies, all pearl-white and glistening. "I was ankle-deep in these things. The bottom was covered."
Stout said, "Just for our own self respect, we need to come back."
"Yeah," I said. "And think of the money."
Good research is a key element in any successful treasure-hunting venture, and I spent the next few days hard at work. I contacted the Divers Alert Network in Durham, North Carolina, which not only provides a 24-hour diving emergency hotline, but also collects data relating to diving injuries and deaths. According to a spokesman there, it was not uncommon for divers to die while salvaging golf balls, and Joel Dovenbarger, director of medical services, faxed me some case histories that contained interesting details. It looked like several of the fatalities had occurred because golf-ball divers got greedy and overloaded their bags--a few bodies had been found attached to bags containing 300 to 500 balls. There were no accounts of divers dying from exposure to polluted golf-course water, and only one account of a diver being attacked by an alligator. All good news.
Stout and I decided that, before attempting Beach View again, we needed a trial run on a more benign course. We chose Alden Pines, located on Pine Island, only about 25 miles from my home. Alden Pines is one of the area's prettiest courses and, because of its narrow fairways, also one of the toughest--in other words, a lot of lost balls. Alden Pines had a couple more things to recommend it. Because it was built on a bay, its lakes were flushed regularly by the tide, which meant clean water. And more important, locals said there was only one big gator on the whole course--a 12-footer known affectionately as Martha.
We marched at dusk, an hour after a lightning storm had cleared the fairways. At each lake we passed, I ye-UNK UNK UNKed but saw no sign of any gators.
As I told Stout, "It's possible that Martha swam across the bay to Beach View and was eaten."
Finally, we found a promising lake and waded into the water. We didn't have drysuits, but I had invested in an expensive mask that covered my entire face, for reasons that had only a little bit to do with pollution. Although few know about it, there is a diabolical amoeba found in the silt of some of Florida's freshwater lakes that can swim up a person's mouth or nose, lodge in the brain, and render a person as dumb or dead as a bucket--amoebic meningoencephalitis, the malady is called. To be attacked by an amoeba while dodging alligators is precisely the kind of irony that God seems to relish, and I wasn't going to give him an opening.
Even though we hadn't seen a gator, it was eerie feeling my way along the bottom of that lake. But it was fun. Golf balls appeared luminescent through the gloom, diamond-bright and as prolific as toadstools. Every few feet, I would pause to deposit three or four balls into my net dive sack. After less than an hour, Stout and I figured we had about 300.
"And these lakes are salvaged regularly," Stout said. "Can you imagine what Beach View must be like?"
With our enthusiasm at full flame, I decided there was no sense in waiting to find out. After depositing about a third of the balls, the country club's share, at the door of the Alden Pines clubhouse (piracy's fine, but I'm no thief) we headed for Beach View, where Stout and I flipped to see who would go into the water first.
What then transpired is unpleasant to relate, for frankly I'm not proud of my behavior that night. As a professional adventurer and outdoorsman, I am used to pressure-charged situations. Danger, after all, is my business. Even so, swimming around in midnight water with a bunch of giant reptiles would pucker anyone's mettle. I remember hearing a strange, high-pitched whimpering as I entered the lake on the 14th fairway, a sad, childlike mewing--and was surprised to realize that it was coming from my own lips. That sound echoed in my mask as I submerged and immediately began to shovel golf balls into a sack. I didn't have to feel for the balls. They were everywhere. The bottom was crusted with them, and I scooped them up by the handful. But I couldn't enjoy it. At any moment, I expected to feel the crushing bite of some big gator--perhaps the behemoth that had apparently devoured Martha. It didn't take long to fill the sack. In fact, I probably overfilled it, because it was a struggle to get back to the surface, where the first words out of Stout's mouth were, "Get out! Get out! We've got company!"
If someone tells you that it is impossible to sprint a mile while wearing a tank, mask, and flippers, that person lacks experience in the trade. I know, because I did it. Only for a true professional are such feats commonplace. I waited at the car for Stout, who arrived out of breath and seemed confused when I demanded, "How big was he? How close did he get? I may go back and shoot the bastard just on principle!"
Stout said, "How big was who?"
"Who? The gator that was after me, that's who."
Stout was shaking his head. "I didn't see any gators. I thought the night watchman was coming. You never gave me a chance to explain. I thought I saw the lights of a golf cart." Stout was searching around the car. "Hey--where's the bag of balls?"
Back on the bottom of the lake, that's where. In an emergency situation, jettisoning 70 pounds of golf balls is a reasonable act.
"Greed," I told Stout later, "is a disease. How many times have I warned you?"
And that is why I never get involved with treasure hunters.