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Sport divers go deep for trinkets and treasure

Image provided by Mel Fisher's Treasures, Copy and Reuse Restrictions Apply

A diver with Mel Fisher's Treasures holds up pieces of gold.

Forget the gold in them thar hills; these days, big treasure troves are being found at the bottom of the ocean.

Consider, for example, the Mantola, a sunken British steam ship found off the coast of Ireland in early October. Torpedoed in 1917, the vessel is believed to hold 20 tons of silver with a current worth of around $18 million.

It’s enough to make a recreational diver grab his or her scuba tanks and dive overboard — even if the potential haul is a bit less precious.

“What we’d consider treasure, those guys would just laugh at,” said Dave Sommers, owner of DiveHatteras in Cape Hatteras, N.C. “A lot of us are just artifact hounds, looking for fittings, portholes, china … That’s what we call treasure.”

For recreational divers, there’s still plenty to be found, especially in the wreck-rich waters along the Eastern Seaboard. “Once you start wreck diving,” said Sommers, “a lot of other types of diving pale in comparison.”

To get in on the action, would-be treasure hunters should have the appropriate certification, be aware of laws regarding artifact removal and consider going with operators who are familiar with area wrecks and local water conditions.

Patience is also important, said Cameron Sebastian, operations manager for Coastal Scuba in North Myrtle Beach, S.C.: “If you’re going to try to look for trinkets and treasures, you’re going to spend a lot of time in one spot just digging through the sand.”

Such “trinkets,” of course, won’t make you rich, but longtime wreck divers suggest there’s also value in simply experiencing the history of various vessels. “These ships are like time capsules,” said Ted Green, owner of O.C. Diver in West Ocean City, Md. “Yes, you’re hunting for stuff, but most people have a good time whether they’re successful or not.”

The following offer good places to start:

Maryland: According to Green, local wrecks range from 250-year-old wooden ships to steel tankers less than five years old. Many have been picked over, he said, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be found.

“Some of the older wrecks have large amounts of silt on them so they get passed over,” said Green. On the so-called Bottle wreck 25 miles south of Ocean City, divers "fanning the bottom" to remove accumulated silt recently found coins, clay pipes and pottery, Green told msnbc.com.

Storms can also change the treasure-hunting playing field. “After Hurricane Irene came through, it exposed stuff I’d never seen in 30 years of diving here,” said Green. Among the recent finds: a pair of brass portholes on the so-called Screw wreck.

North Carolina: Perhaps the most popular wreck in North Carolina is the Tarpon, a World War II submarine that sunk just south of Cape Hatteras. Alas, it’s still considered government property and taking artifacts is prohibited.

Less than a mile away, though, divers can explore the Proteus, an ocean liner that sank in 1918. “People originally dove it for the leaded-glass windows, although they’re rare now,” said Sommers. “But people do still come up with dishes and silverware from it.”

South Carolina: With warmer temperatures than its northern neighbors and several wrecks in shallow water, South Carolina attracts treasure hunters of all skill levels and interests.

For beginners, Sebastian recommends the Sherman, a 200-foot-long Civil War blockade runner that’s been known to cough up buttons, bottles and belt buckles. Those interested in maritime mysteries should visit the “Governor,” a Civil War-era paddlewheeler where divers have found rifles and bullets, but the ship’s true identity remains elusive.

Florida: Finally, if you’re in search of genuine treasure, your best bet is to sign on with a company that knows where the goods are and has the right to collect them. In Florida, that means heading to Key West, where Mel Fisher's Treasures offers regular dives to the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sank in 1622 with a cargo of silver, gold and jewels.

For committed treasure hunters, the company offers annual memberships starting at $10,000, which entitles them to dive the site, keep the first artifact they find (limits apply) and receive a share of everything else found in that year.

Not feeling quite so flush or adventurous? Six times a year, the company offers the Atocha Dive Adventure, a weeklong package in which guests learn about the ship’s history and rediscovery and participate in two dives to the site. At $2,500 per person, it’s a good way to get your feet wet, as it were.

The only caveat: you don’t get to keep what you find. Instead, the Fisher family will exchange it for something of like value, up to $2,500, from the company’s collection.

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Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him at Twitter.