Around 2am one September night in 2014, Joe Pennisi started screaming in bed. His wife woke up, and he explained what had spurred the outburst: Video taken by GoPro cameras he had attached to the fishing net he used to trawl the seafloor off the California coast had captured a glinting, yellowish, rectangular object. Gold. Or so the fisherman thought—as many as 30 bars of it according to his review of his footage. The punchline of the story, reported in incredible depth by Tara Duggan and Jason Fagone for the San Francisco Chronicle, is that Pennisi doesn't have the gold today. Nor has he been able to even determine if it is gold. But between then and now he's mounted a mammoth effort to determine if he could do so. It has involved maritime lawyers, divers, NOAA staffers, and an expert who determined the haul could be worth $55 million. It's taken over his life at times. And there has been one tantalizing clue.
A major issue is that the gold he thinks he saw rests 1,000 feet deep in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary where he fishes. Federal law bars him from doing anything there but fish—including salvaging anything or using divers or robotic submersibles. The fines for doing so are staggering at up to $100,000 a day. But there was one potential way around it: He could file a federal suit known as an in rem action, in which Pennisi would present evidence of his find in court in a bid to gain title to the wreck. The problem is he needed much firmer evidence that something was down there. So he decided to swallow his fears of being caught by NOAA staff or sanctuary officials, go back to the scene, and look for that evidence. And then he found it—what looked like the cannon of the ship that would have theoretically been carrying the gold. But moments later, he "realized something awful." (Read the fascinating full story.)