Randy Barnhouse makes a hobby of diving for treasures and sunken ships

Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Randy Barnhouse holds up a piece from the Brick Wreck that sank in a hurricane as it was transporting bricks to the Dry Tortugas for a Union fort that was being built during the Civil War. (Laura Simon)

To some, diving for sunken treasure in the sea sounds like the stuff of mysterious novels or movies. But to Randy Barnhouse, sunken treasure diving is a passion that he has pursued for nearly 30 years.

"I always liked swimming and being around lakes, rivers and streams," says Barnhouse. "In 1980, I decided to take scuba lessons from a local dive shop that was then located here in town. I got my basic certification and then later my advanced certification, and that's [what eventually led me] to treasure diving."

Barnhouse goes treasure diving about once a year off the east coast of Florida.

"There was a fleet of Spanish ships that sank back in 1715 during a hurricane," says Barnhouse. "We know the location of about a half a dozen of those ships. Some of the treasure [that those ships carried] has still not been found."

In 1985, Barnhouse was lucky enough to be involved in a dive that discovered the Spanish ship "Nuestra Señora De Atocha." It was the culmination of a 16-year search headed by Mel Fisher, whom Barnhouse calls "the undisputed king of sunken treasure."

Treasures and research books Randy Barnhouse has collected over the years are displayed on his patio table Aug. 27. (Laura Simon)

"The Spaniards could never find that ship after it sank, so we really hit the mother lode when we found it," says Barnhouse. Thousands of emeralds, 150 pounds of gold and 50 tons of silver bars were found on that dive, along with a huge collection of gold chains, rings and crucifixes.

"We actually ended up lowering shopping carts down into the water with us to haul all of the treasure out," says Barnhouse.

Painstaking measures are taken to document everything found on treasure dives, according to Barnhouse.

"We take photographs and document things like the location of the item, how the artifact lies in relation to the wreckage and which ship wreck it came from," he explains. "We treat each find as a time capsule. Otherwise, the historical integrity [of the artifacts] can be lost."

When hidden treasure is found on a dive, it is split between the state, the lease site and the diving crew.

"Twenty percent of the take goes to the state of Florida," says Barnhouse. "Of the remainder, 50 percent goes to the people who own the lease sites, such as Queen Jewels Ltd., and the remaining 50 percent is split by the diving crew."

There is still a "big prize," as Barnhouse puts it, lying submerged somewhere off the east coast of Florida.

"In 1715, the queen of Spain was preparing to marry King Phillip," says Barnhouse. "The queen would not consummate the marriage unless he provided a dowry which was to be shipped from the New World to Spain."

Several of the ships carrying that dowry never made it to their destination: "About a half a dozen ships are still missing," says Barnhouse.

Barnhouse just returned from his most recent treasure dive in Sebastian, Fla.

"I went with a group called Caribbean Treasure Salvage," he says. "It was my first time to go with this group."

However, out of the 10 days he was in Sebastian, he only got to treasure hunt on one day.

"Conditions were really hazardous when I was down there this time," says Barnhouse. "Visibility was poor and sea conditions were very rough. The rolling seas would kick up at any time, which makes it feel like you're being tossed around in a blender."

Barnhouse used his time in Sebastian to maintain some of the treasure diving equipment and fix things in disrepair on the search vessel.

"I'm planning to go on another dive down there in 2013," says Barnhouse.

He is very opposed to government intervention in the treasure diving industry, especially the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which Barnhouse views as a corrupt organization.

"The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration has not been held accountable for fraud, abuse of hardworking mariners and blatant misuse of funds. To add insult to injury, NOAA is attempting to create more 'marine sanctuaries' off our coasts, where they will continue to prey upon all U.S. citizens that enjoy the sea for a livelihood and recreation," says Barnhouse.

Barnhouse is a retired schoolteacher who spent his last 15 years teaching at the Alternative Education Center in Cape Girardeau. He is the owner of Atlantis Swimming Pool Services in Cape.

"[The business] helps me to fund my treasure hunting," says Barnhouse.

Born in Bonne Terre, Mo., Barnhouse, who is 58, grew up in Desloge, Mo., and graduated from Park Hills High School in 1972. He was in the military police from 1974-1977, and he drove a tank in Germany for the Army Reserves for one year.

"Once I got out of the Army, I came back here and went to Southeast Missouri State University," says Barnhouse.

Besides treasure diving, Barnhouse participates in the River City Players, of which his wife, Debra, is president.

"I've acted in some of their productions and been assistant director and worked in lighting," say Barnhouse. "I try to support the [acting] group any way I can."

He also supports Safe Harbor Animal Sanctuary in Jackson.

"It is a 'no-kill' facility and its goal is to get each animal adopted," says Barnhouse.

But treasure diving is never far from Barnhouse's mind.

"I just heard from my captain down in Florida that pieces of one of the wreck sites are coming up," says Barnhouse. "I could be called any day to go back down."

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