The Secret of the Santa Maria 

A sunken Spanish galleon lured Margaret Brandeis to Ecuador, but the biggest surprise wasn't included on her treasure map.

Margaret Brandeis had a recurring dream: She'd be swimming along the bottom of the sea and a small hole would appear in the ocean floor. She would be sucked through it and emerge into a room of gold, where glittering objects were piled high: mounds of coins, piles of dishes, teetering candelabra -- treasure in Goonies quantities. In her dream, Brandeis would find it hard to breathe. She knew the gold was real -- she could touch and smell it, and knew the color and the roughness and the temperature of the metal.

And then she'd wake up in her cramped, humid bunk on a boat moored off the coast of Ecuador, where she'd slept every night for years. Instead of a shining secret chamber, Brandeis would find herself in darkness, surrounded by her slumbering dive crew and the outsize, disoriented tropical insects that would fly below deck and thrash madly to get out. The only gold anywhere to be seen was a magazine ad featuring a gold BMW 730i. She'd taped it above her bunk to remind her of what she would buy when she became unbelievably rich, because Brandeis was a treasure hunter, and she believed that day could be any day. It was as real to her as the gold in the dream -- even during her waking hours she imagined how the metal would feel pressed into her palm.

Her dream was twofold: Yes, she wanted to find gold, but she also longed to become the first woman in the almost exclusively male treasure-salvaging industry to lead an expedition to uncover a wrecked Spanish galleon. It was a quest that would take her from her comfortable home in suburban Hayward to the Bahamas, and then to the tiny Ecuadoran village of Manta, where the locals would dub her "La Bucanera" -- the buccaneer. It would lead her to spend a small fortune in pursuit of the Santa Maria de los Remedios, which sank in 1590 with what was believed to be $1 billion in treasure. Her quest would ultimately consume seventeen years of her life, and encompass arrests at gunpoint, scheming rivals, poisonous sea snakes, crooked diviners, witches, mutinies, parasites, and obstacles of all sorts -- and that wasn't even the strangest part of her adventures.


THE MARAVILLA

Brandeis never planned on a life at sea. Even moderately long boat voyages made her miserably sick. Raised in the Hayward hills, she was a tomboy from the start -- her machinist father treated her like a boy. "He wanted three sons, I think, and had three daughters," she says.

As the eldest child, it fell to her to learn the family trade, so Brandeis worked in her father's tool and die shop from the age of six. She carried a micrometer around in her pocket the way other girls carry lip gloss. By the time she was old enough to apply for her learner's permit, her thumb was so badly sliced from the machine shop that the DMV couldn't get a clean print and refused to let her drive. Her budding career as a machinist ended during her senior year of high school when a longtime customer spotted her pulling off her goggles and hat at the end of the workday, watched her hair fall out from under her cap, and exclaimed, "Oh my God! You're a girl!"

"That tweaked something in me," Brandeis says. "I said, 'I quit, Dad. If people don't even know that I'm a girl, I can't do this anymore."

The next decade was a serendipitous blur. The young woman dreamed of keeping horses, so she took the money she saved from her father's shop and bought some Arabians. She also accepted a job as general manager for a company that built motorcycle racing frames. In addition to an aptitude for mechanics, it turned out she had a head for business, so when the owner of the company died it fell to Brandeis to shut the place down. While selling off her boss' property, she met a realtor who offered to pay for her to get a realtor's license if she would manage some properties for him. So she took the required real-estate courses in addition to studying business administration at Cal State Hayward and computer programming at Chabot College.

By 27, Brandeis was en route to full-fledged yuppiedom. She'd married Kevin Wong, proprietor of a Hayward dive shop, and owned a handful of rental properties, two homes, and a horse ranch. But the couple had decided they weren't interested in having kids or climbing any corporate ladder, so when Kevin idly mentioned he might like to go treasure hunting, Brandeis took it seriously. The hassles of managing a ranch were already getting old, and she wanted her husband to pursue his dream, too. Besides, she reasoned, "I'd only be gone for a year or two."

Somewhere, the winds of fate were playing a tune that sounded a lot like the theme from Gilligan's Island, the part about the "three-hour tour."

Through Wong's dive-shop excursions, the couple knew a boat owner named Glenn Miller, who had a charter dive boat equipped for treasure hunting. The Coral Sea was a $3 million luxury yacht, complete with a helicopter pad and state-of-the-art electronics. Miller agreed to serve as the expedition's captain, and even knew of a wreck they could work: Nuestra Señora de las Maravillas, which sank in the Bahamas in 1656 after being struck by another ship. She'd been carrying 280 tons of silver, as well as gold and gems. The best thing was, somebody already knew exactly where she was.

The bow section of the Maravilla, as they called the ship, was found in 1972 by Bob Marx, a legendary figure in the salvaging industry. Marx claims to have found more sunken treasure than anyone in the world, worked wrecks in 62 countries, and written 55 books on shipwreck-related subjects. He agreed to arrange a sublease for salvage rights to the site in return for a cut of any recovered treasure. Dick Anderson, a mutual friend of Marx and Miller who had witnessed the bow's discovery, would travel with the dive crew to point out the location.

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