Antique jewelry acquired through scuba diving. Credit: Courtesy of Justin Petelle

Justin Petelle has always loved antique bottles.

Before glassblowing was automated in the early 1900s, bottles were made from hand in almost every conceivable color, style and shape. As a kid in Wells, he would search the dump sites behind old buildings to find antique bottles. His favorites are medicine bottles dated through the 1840s to 1860s.

After a while, though, those sites were picked over — Petelle wasn’t the only antique bottle aficionado, after all — and Petelle needed a new source for his obsession. He pondered over historical maps and realized how many old houses, hotels and other buildings were located on Maine’s many waterways.

So he donned some flippers and an oxygen tank, and went searching for buried treasure.

For decades, scuba diving Mainers have been hunting for underwater treasure in lakes and rivers across the state, and even off the coast. Their searches not only reveal the small historical treasures of our state, but also spooky secrets that might be better off uncovered.  

Scuba diving in Maine isn’t like the scuba diving you may be thinking of, with crystal clear waters, coral reefs and colorful fish. Petelle said that the visibility is terrible, the wildlife can be downright scary and sometimes you need to dig through the mud to find exactly what you are looking for.

“A lot of our water is very tannic, that dark brown, so below 8 or 10 feet it goes just pitch dark if you’re diving at night,” Petelle said. “You might on a good day have 5 feet of visibility in the beam of the flashlight. Every now and then something will touch your leg or bump you. It could be a piece of tree limb but it will just scare the hell out of you. You see a lot of eels. I hate eels. The way they move, it’s like a snake underwater. If you’re easily spooked, it’s not for you.”

It’s worth it, though — at least it is to historical enthusiasts and collectors like Petelle. Over the years with his handy underwater metal detector and scuba gear, Petelle has been able to find antique coins, jewelry and other historical objects like cannonballs and even a World War II-era boxing medal in addition to the bottles that he loves.

Another treasure hunter, Rick Carney from Brunswick, has been diving for 40 years. He, like Petelle, started diving because of his interest in acquiring antique bottles when his usual dump sites were picked over. His first treasure hunting dive was in Long Lake up in Harrison, where a map from the 1840s showed a dock that once belonged to the Elms Hotel.

“The first place I hit underwater was untouched,” Carney said. “There [were] hundreds of bottles. The very first one I pulled out — to give you a sense of value — was an apple green [bottle] with a knobby top that was $300. it just solidified the hidden history that’s out there everywhere.”

Since then, there aren’t too many bodies of water where Carney hasn’t searched for treasure in Maine, lugging along his net bag to collect his treasures.

He’s found a way to appreciate even the broken shards that are often found at the bottom of Maine’s lakes and streams, and started making art from the broken pieces about 10 years ago. His first project was a lampshade that still sits in his living room. Now, he owns a gallery in Brunswick that features his art and frequents crafts fairs throughout the New England area.

Antique bottles aren’t the only thing Carney finds. He often locates doll heads (some people collect those, too), stamped bronze pitchers, double-headed masonic eagle statuettes and even a suitcase filled with swords that had been stolen in a robbery.  

Though Petelle and Carney focus mainly on the lakes and rivers of Maine, there are treasure hunters diving off the coast as well. Paul Rollins, owner of Rollins Scuba Associates in South Portland, has been fascinated by shipwrecks and the treasures they hold for nearly five decades.

Rollins is a scuba instructor himself, and helped develop Portland’s underwater search and recovery dive team, but the hidden secrets of Maine’s waterways continue to fascinate him. He has found a steam whistle off of the steamer Bay State in Cape Elizabeth, military insignias from the Portland Harbor and Casco Bay area where there were once many military bases, and antique coins.

“The Portland Head Light is a great place to find coins,” Rollins said. “People use it like a wishing well.”

Rollins even finds more modern treasures. Once, he found a Harley Davidson motorcycle 20 feet down at a popular swimming spot in the Saco River (a friend of his was able to repair it and get it up and running again, too). Another time, he found a Candillac that had been driven off a South Portland pier.

“You never know on the surface what’s down there,” Rollins said.

These treasure hunting divers donate some of their historical finds — Petelle said that he has contributed artifacts to the Wells Historical Society, and Rollins has donated to the Portland Head Light Museum — but most of them keep vast basement archives of the knick knacks they have found.

Many divers are secretive about their best spots and finds, not only because they are worried about them getting picked over by other treasure hunting divers, but also that the state will make them inaccessible if they are considered historically valuable.

If the state of Maine deems it of archaeological value, they own it,” Rollins said. “When people find certain things, they don’t want it taken away from them, so they don’t advertise it too much.”

Chip Lagerbom, maritime historian and teacher at Belfast Area High School, understands this tension well. Lagerbom is trained as an archaeologist, and understands the conflict between keeping sites preserved to learn the bigger historical story behind them and bringing objects that might otherwise be lost to the surface.

“We don’t want to ruin some information that would be gleaned,” Lagerbom said. “On the other hand underwater archaeology is destructive by nature. [There’s] the legitimacy of finding something and retrieving it as opposed to leaving it for a proper archaeological dig to happen that may not happen.”

History is a big draw for divers, though, especially in Maine. Lagerbom is one of the founders of the Mid-coast Maine Aqua-nuts, a local diving group that frequently visits and catalogs shipwrecks in the Penobscot Bay (though they have also explored freshwater wrecks, like the Twilight steamboat in Moosehead Lake). He said that of the 80 or 90 people that now make up the group, at least half a dozen are in it primarily to see Maine’s hidden history.

“The younger divers are into what you can do hardcore with diving, whether it’s the deeper dives or the decompression, but you say that [you’re seeing a shipwreck] to them, they’re right there with you,” Lagerbom said. “I think the interest is there. Hopefully, we will turn a few of them into future us.”