In the deep end

Australia's Captain Mike Hatcher lived a life of extraordinary adventure while diving for sunken treasure

Four hundred years ago a lone junk ship making its way back from Thailand to China didn't get very far before striking trouble right in the middle of the Gulf of Thailand. It went down in 60m of water with all hands, and a cargo of extremely valuable Sawankhalok pottery from the Ayutthaya era.

Treasures Of The Deep: The Extraordinary Life And Times Of Captain Mike Hatcher By Hugh Edwards.

It sat on the ocean floor, undisturbed, until a warm January day in 1992, when an American diving instructor in Thailand phoned his old friend Captain Mike Hatcher in Australia.

"They've found a ceramics wreck," he said, "out in the gulf. Some fishermen brought up some vases in their nets."

And so began yet another exciting chapter in Treasures Of The Deep: The Extraordinary Life And Times Of Captain Mike Hatcher, a rollicking tale of high adventure on the high seas with a man described as a real-life Australian version of Hollywood's Indiana Jones.

Mike was on the scene a week later on-board his trusty salvage vessel Australia Tide. His crew of six divers worked around the clock for eight days, sometimes braving foul weather and treacherous ocean currents. But barely had the first load of vases, beautiful little statues and figurines, as well as a fantastic ceramic elephant, been winched to the surface, than a Thai fishing boat appeared and began to circle his ship, finally anchoring nearby. The crew was a team of off-duty Thai navy officers supplementing their wages by doing a bit of moonlighting as salvors.

They weren't exactly overjoyed to see Mike and his crew stripping the site of what they considered to be rightfully theirs. However, a gift of AU$5,000 (157,000 baht) and several pieces of pottery helped to ease their anxiety and they departed. But they were soon replaced by a larger and more belligerent opponent in the form of a Royal Thai Navy patrol boat who claimed they were pillaging the property of the Thai government as the wreck lay within Thailand's territorial waters. The dispute was that the site was actually in international waters. A fierce argument broke out, which rapidly escalated into a tense stand-off, creating something of an international incident and becoming the subject of a spate of news reports, as well as a television documentary on Australian television back in those days entitled The Thai Incident. However the loot was confiscated.

"In the end we had no option," Mike said. "Our ship and gear could have been confiscated and we could have ended up in jail. We just had to cut our losses and run."

After this disastrous encounter, Mike had a string of other adventures throughout Southeast Asia with mixed results until, in 1999, he hit the jackpot when he stumbled across the wreckage of the huge Chinese junk Tek Sing, which has been described as an oriental version of Titanic. Tek Sing was one of the last of the great Chinese ocean-going junks. She was bound for Jakarta in 1822 with 1,600 passengers and 200 crew when disaster struck. Attacked by pirates and during a frantic chase, she ran aground on a reef, sinking in about 30m of water.

A passing English ship managed to rescue about 190 of the survivors but the rest took up residence on the sea floor along with her cargo which consisted of 350,000 pieces of Chinese blue and white porcelain. It was the largest haul of antique Chinese porcelain ever salvaged and later sold at auction for millions of dollars.

Not a bad effort for a guy who grew up in an English orphanage, was sent to Australia at the age of 14 where he worked on a cattle station before joining the Australian Navy. In 1970, upon retirement from the navy, he set up a commercial salvage company in Australia to locate World War II merchantmen and warships and retrieve their cargoes of tin, rubber and scrap metal. At that stage tin was worth $43,000 a tonne _ a fortune which attracted other fortune hunters and lead to many skirmishes over ownership rights.

Mike's no stranger to conflict and controversy. He's been accused by marine archaeologists of being a looter. They claim that the speed of a commercial recovery results in valuable historical information being lost due to wanton destruction of heritage. Mike and his cohorts respond that the length of time taken by an archaeological programme means that the sea itself destroys a lot of material once a wreck is opened up.

He's certainly had his share of ups and downs ranging from losing the lot in "The Thai Incident" to acquiring staggering wealth on the Tek Sing. Has he ever thought of quitting while he's still ahead?

"The most difficult thing is the fact that I have this bagful of money", Mike said. "If I use it properly, I'm made for life. But then I take another look at myself. 'Stop' is a four-letter word for me. It's at this point I realised that the adventure is worth more than the money."

Treasures Of The Deep is a fascinating look at a larger-than-life character who has salvaged treasure troves from over 80 shipwrecks, making him probably one of the most successful treasure hunters in the world.

The book is published by Harper Collins (Australia), and is available at www.avidreader.com.au or by emailing fiona@avidreader.com.au.

About the author

Writer: Stephen Rhodes