Treasure Hunter Darrell Miklos Reveals the Scariest Part of His Job (and It's Not the Poisonous Fish)

Darrell Miklos has been treasure hunting for decades and now stars in the Discovery docu-series, 'Cooper’s Treasure,' which follows his search for shipwrecks using a map made in space by legendary NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper. Discovery Channel

It was close to midnight when the storm appeared out of nowhere. Darrell Miklos, a treasure hunter, and his crew were eating a late-night dinner on deck when the lid to their barbeque suddenly flew off, nearly slapping him in the face. As the wind and waves picked up, they realized that the smaller boat they were towing—which was armed with new camera equipment Miklos used for his dives—had started sinking. "Our captain dove off the boat, in his underwear, to try to save my boat!" Miklos says.

The captain managed to get the motor running, but the boat was filling with water, fast, so he cut the line and took off. "Don't worry about it!" Miklos yelled as he watched his colleague disappear into the dark, violent sea. They turned on their flood light and searched blindly for the captain, but when their anchor came loose they were forced to head to deeper waters.

"For five hours we sat there crying, wondering what happened to him," Miklos says.

It was 2004, and Miklos had a wife and newborn at home. He tried to reach them but couldn't, so he called his mother. "I told her, 'You may not hear from me again. We're in a hurricane. We've already lost one guy. I don't know what to say but if you don't hear from me, tell my wife I love her and to take care of the baby.' And then the line dies!" he says. "We didn't have cell phones like we do now. For three days, my wife and mother thought I was dead. It was horrible! My mom chewed me out: 'Don't you ever, ever do that again!'"

But he has, again and again.

Miklos has been treasure hunting for decades and now stars in the Discovery docu-series, Cooper's Treasure, which follows his search for shipwrecks using a map made in space by legendary NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper. So far, that lofty premise has proved remarkably salient: Miklos found an anchor off the coast of Turks and Caicos that he believes could be from one of Christopher Columbus's ships. But finding buried treasure is a risky business, rife with disappointments and death traps.

"Once I was in a hurricane in the Bermuda Triangle," he says. "All the radio equipment went out. All the electronics went black, just like you hear in the movies."

The fog was so thick, he and his crew were sailing blindly into the storm. When they reached the eye, the waves dropped from 30-foot surges to flat water. Suddenly, they picked up a May Day signal from a large tanker.

"We listened to them recant the story of how they were taking in water and jumping overboard," says Miklos. "It was horrific. We didn't know what to do—or where we were. None of our navigation equipment was working. We didn't know whether to turn it off and not listen, because there was nothing we could do to help them, but we were also so enthralled and wanted to know if they made it."

Tankers are hundreds of feet long, Miklos explains, but he was in a 100-feet vessel piercing through a storm. He had no idea if he'd make it.

"I was so young, in my late 30s," he says. "I'm going through this storm thinking, I'm never gonna see my daughter again!"

But he did make it, and he later learned that all but a few of the people on that tanker survived, too.

Perils lurk everywhere for treasure hunters underwater, from sharks and eels to barracudas, fire coral and jellyfish. Discovery Channel

Another time, Miklos was on a 105-foot boat heading from the Bahamas to Miami when he ran into two 100-mile-per-hour storms. "We were getting beaten side-to-side and front-to-back, and we took on water," he says.

There were only three other crew members, and anytime the waves hit, the bow would get buried underwater and then plow back up, sending anyone hiding in the living quarters airborne.

Then the galley kitchen caught on fire.

"That's the world thing that can happen to a sailor—to be caught in a storm and catch fire," Miklos says. "Somehow, my captain managed to put out the fire, otherwise we were doomed. We would not be having this conversation right now. It came that close."

Quick squalls, unreported storms and undercurrents are among the most dangerous factors in treasure hunting, especially in remote areas. Miklos doesn't head out unprepared; he uses computer software and up-to-date weather reports to track storms and plot safe routes through the water. Yet those technologies don't help him navigate the perils lurking underwater, from sharks, eels and barracudas to fire coral and jellyfish.

"We're visitors in their backyard, so you have to know who lives there and play friendly around them," he says.

Once, Miklos almost touched a lionfish. "They have these tentacles and they're filled with venom. They're very territorial, and they are spotted and all different colors, so you can't tell the difference between the surrounding area, unless you see it moving," he says.

Another time, he reached into a crevice to pull himself through a current and an eel popped out and nearly bit him.

But Miklos's biggest fear is not weather, wind or poisonous fish. "It's people out there who don't want us to succeed," he says. "Everybody in my business is in the same boat, pun intended. We've been put in a bad light."

He's referring to the stigma that treasure hunters are greedy thieves disturbing the rich cultural history on the ocean floor. "It's not about greed or winner takes all," Miklos says. "It's about making a substantial discovery, changing history in a positive way, informing the public about their rich cultural history, and sharing that information with the rest of the world. And if there are financial benefits, fantastic…

"Relationships—your crew, your agreement with the host country—make things fail, not weather," he adds. "If you don't have a good working relationship, everything will fall to pieces. That's the hidden secret in the business."