The Leg at the Bottom of the Sea

Written by David Kushner, Outside

Monday May 24th, 2021

Teenage diver Sebastian Morris and his dad were hunting for treasure in the Gulf of Mexico when they found a below-the-knee prosthetic. How do you lose that in the ocean? Amazingly, they solved the mystery.

On May 4, 2020, with the pandemic turning his life upside down, 13-year-old Sebastian Morris needed a break. Bright and amiable, with long brown hair and wraparound shades, Sebastian lived in Santa Rosa Beach and enjoyed the usual Florida-boy fare—swimming, snorkeling, and hanging with his buddies, who nicknamed themselves the Tribe.

That morning, as Sebastian watched the rippling waves coming in at St. Andrews State Park —more than 1,200 acres of shorefront and dunes just east of the town of Panama City Beach—he couldn’t wait to go diving with his dad, Bobby, a blond-haired 46-year-old who was loading up a rented pontoon boat.

Bobby had parlayed his passion for diving into a career as a commercial diver and remote-operated-vehicle pilot. The work is adventurous and challenging—he’d done everything from searching for a sunken helicopter to cleaning up after the British Petroleum oil spill. It’s also dangerous. One time while Bobby was torch-cutting an underwater structure damaged during Hurricane Katrina, he briefly got knocked unconscious by an explosion.

But what really captured Sebastian’s imagination were the treasures his father occasionally found on the job, including a 300-year-old ship he discovered in 2019, deep in the Black Sea near Turkey. “I was like, man, I kind of want to do that,” Sebastian says.

“All he’s ever wanted to be is a treasure hunter,” Bobby confirms. As they set out into the Gulf of Mexico, Sebastian imagined all the amazing things they might find.

Sebastian and his dad, Bobby, heading out to dive
Sebastian and his dad, Bobby, heading out to dive (Photo: Courtesy Elizabeth Morris)

The allure of treasure hunting is a Florida staple. Chuck Meide, a maritime archaeologist and director of the archeological program for the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum, estimates that there are roughly 5,000 shipwrecks in coastal waters around the state, a legacy that dates back to July 31, 1715. That’s when a hurricane slammed the central coast near Sebastian Inlet, sinking 11 Spanish ships that were passing through on their way back from Havana. The disaster claimed the lives of more than a thousand people and left millions of pesos of gold and jewels scattered undersea, some of which were found by treasure hunter Kip Wagner and his team in the 1960s.

Today, more than three centuries later, searching along and in the waters of Florida’s Treasure Coast, a stretch of three Atlantic-facing counties running from Martin County north to Indian River County, is a highly professionalized industry. Since the days of famed Florida treasure hunter Mel Fisher—who in 1985 found a Spanish treasure ship, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, near the Keys—well-equipped salvors funded by multimillion-dollar investments have been cornering the market on the biggest hauls. In February 2020, a 43-year-old treasure hunter named Jonah Martinez was metal-detecting on the Treasure Coast’s Turtle Trail Beach when he discovered 22 silver coins from the 1715 shipwrecks. He’d been a member of a team that, five years earlier, found 350 coins from one of the sunken ships, estimated to be worth millions. “It’s a passion,” Martinez told a local newspaper last year. “It’s the thrill of the hunt that I love.”

Near this site, an international battle is currently being waged over La Trinité, which archaeologists have called one of the most important shipwrecks ever found in North America. The man at its center is 58-year-old Bobby Pritchett, a professional salvor who heads a Florida-based company called Global Marine Exploration.

In 2016, Pritchett announced that he’d found what is believed by many to be the 16th-century French ship. After spending several dangerous months at sea and millions of dollars provided by backers, he located the remains off the coast of Cape Canaveral, a discovery that ranks as an archaeological and financial jackpot of a lifetime. The problem is, France has reclaimed La Trinité and the various artifacts found with it—including three bronze cannons—and a U.S. federal judge has backed the nation’s argument that the ship rightly belongs to it. In an ongoing legal struggle, Pritchett is seeking compensation for finding it and recovering the artifacts.

Even as the most lucrative treasure hunts increasingly fall under the control of rich backers, the YouTube generation is taking to the water, getting in on the action in smaller ways. With the reach of the internet and the ubiquity of affordable, high-tech tools—GPS, magnetometers, drones, and the like—anyone can dabble in treasure hunting now. As a result, the hunters aren’t just crusty old sea dogs anymore. Sometimes they’re influencers: younger, perkier, selfie-friendly individuals racking up views.

In late 2016, Jake “Scuba Jake” Koehler, a gamer who lives near Columbus, Georgia, put up a video of a pistol he recovered while diving for treasure in the Chattahoochee River. His post, called “Found Possible Murder Weapon Underwater in River! (Police Called),” went viral, and now his YouTube channel has more than 12 million subscribers who tune in regularly to watch him look for things around the world. In Bondi Beach, Australia, 40-year-old former solar-panel salesman Leigh Webber (a.k.a. the Bondi Treasure Hunter) developed a huge following by posting online videos of his hunts. A recent one on YouTube that shows him pulling a safe full of coins out of a canal in Amsterdam racked up more than a million views. He currently makes his living from ad revenues generated by videos of his finds.

Treasure hunters for hire can also earn hundreds or thousands of dollars to fish out lost items from down below. But unlike previous generations, Instagram-ready scavengers aren’t necessarily expecting to get rich. They just want a little adventure and fame.

Back in Santa Rosa Beach, Sebastian Morris dreamed of hunting for loot, too. But with his father away more than half the year, he had to satisfy his curiosity the way most kids do—by surfing online and seeing what other undersea explorers were posting.

That wasn’t easy. Bobby and his wife, Elizabeth, raised Sebastian and his older brother, Gavin, largely offline, in the hope of getting them outside more. “I’ve been a very outdoor, outgoing person all my life, so it’s been my goal to get my kids off Wi-Fi for at least a fraction of the day,” Bobby says. “There’s a whole world going on out there. It’s pretty amazing above sea level and below sea level.”

Still, Elizabeth would occasionally let Sebastian use her phone to look around, and he became fascinated by searchers like Koehler and Webber. He really got hooked in October 2019 during his inaugural diving trip, to a crystal clear dive park near Ponce de Leon, Florida, called Vortex Spring. “You never forget your first breath underwater,” Sebastian says.

For Sebastian, more than anything, diving seemed like a great way to bond with his dad. When he went to Vortex Spring, Bobby was halfway around the world in Equatorial Guinea, working on an oil field. Sebastian called him, and Bobby could hear his son’s enthusiasm. “When are you coming home?” Sebastian asked. “We can go diving!”

When Bobby returned in December 2019, they headed off to explore the Destin Jetties, a popular diving and snorkeling spot on the Florida Panhandle, and the Underwater Museum of Art, a collection of submerged sculptures near Grayton Beach. Sebastian’s treasure-hunting dreams didn’t quite live up to his fantasies on those trips, though: the first thing he found was a long-sleeved shirt bearing the name of a church group.

On what proved to be the fateful day of May 4, 2020, Sebastian and Bobby went out again. After reaching the jetties, they started swimming around underwater, taking in the views and looking for anything unusual. Suddenly, Sebastian noticed a strange glimmer on the bottom. “In the corner of my eye, I see something shine,” he recalls. He swam over for a closer look and saw what appeared to be a leather strap waving from whatever was stuck in the sand.

Sebastian struggled for about ten minutes to move it; his dad finally swam over, and they were able to yank it free. As the object floated there, clouded by swirling sand, it was hard to distinguish what it was. “I thought it was like some weird dog muzzle, but then I saw the other end of it,” Sebastian says. “It was a foot.” Sebastian realized he’d found an artificial leg and started laughing. How does someone lose that?

Sebastian right after the discovery
Sebastian right after the discovery (Photos: Courtesy Elizabeth Morris)

If Sergeant Carter Hess hadn’t been in Afghanistan on June 29, 2012, he probably would have been surfing. A handsome and chipper 21-year-old Army paratrooper on his second tour with the 82nd Airborne Division, Hess grew up riding hurricane swells off Panama City Beach with his friends. In a southern drawl, he told me how exciting and fun those days were: “When the group text message starts going about, like, where we’re meeting up and when, everybody gets so pumped.”

Hess was leading an infantry patrol through the dry, rocky Arghandab River Valley in 2012, and anything having to do with surfing seemed like a distant dream. He had done his first tour at 18 and was fourth-generation military, the son of a former Florida state attorney named Glenn Hess. His unit had been training the Afghan police, helping them operate more effectively and, as he puts it, “kind of playing big brother.” Having served on the front lines of the troop surge in Kandahar Province, a mammoth Obama-era effort to push Taliban troops out of southern Afghanistan, Hess had seen how dangerous the entire operation really was. “Our battalion had a lot of amputees that year,” he says.

Now he was inching along steadily, moving in a straight line behind a soldier who was searching the path for bombs with ground-penetrating radar. But the system isn’t perfect, the minesweeper missed one, and Hess’s left foot came down on a pressure plate buried beneath the sand. The explosion threw him to the ground and changed his life forever.

Hess came home wondering if he’d ever run again, let alone stand on a surfboard. The blast had blown off his foot and lower leg—everything below the top of his boot. After receiving emergency treatment in Kandahar, he was transferred to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. Doctors had to remove more of his right leg—six inches below the knee—to save the rest.

Hess tried to retain his natural optimism, but the loss devastated him. It wasn’t just the amputation; it was the knowledge that his fellow soldiers had to keep going without one of their own. “That can affect a platoon in many ways,” he says. “It affects the morale of the team, it affects mission-readiness.”

After six months of rehab at Walter Reed—which involved spending a lot of time getting used to moving around on a prosthetic leg—Hess went home to Florida, where his family threw him a welcome-home party on the beach. Beside a row of American flags, they’d written “CARTER HESS OUR HERO” in the sand. Hess appreciated the gesture, but looking at the ocean was painful, since his surfing life felt like a distant memory. “I got really depressed and overweight,” he says of the period that followed. But he eventually decided to rededicate himself to recovery.

At Walter Reed, Hess had been fitted out with a standard artificial leg, featuring a pylon, foot, and socket. One day in 2014, he grabbed his surfboard and headed to St. Andrews State Park to see if he could get up on a wave. As he paddled out, the water swelling and receding under him, he felt his instincts take over, just as they had the last time he’d surfed before the war. But as he popped up to ride an incoming wave, the leg was stripped from his body. “The whole thing came off,” he recalls. “It was pretty bad.” The prosthetic eventually washed up onshore, but Hess went home and gave up. “I became a shut-in,” he says.

Eventually, he realized that surfing might still be possible if he had a more durable leg. He contacted Walter Reed, whose prosthetics team offered to work with him on one that would better suit his needs. Tricking it out became a creative collaboration that also involved Medical Center Orthotics and Prosthetics, a designer and manufacturer of artificial limbs based in Maryland. Aaron McDonald, a 30-year-old lead technician with the company, bonded with Hess over the unique challenge. “He’s an aggressive surfer,” McDonald says, “so we had to put our heads together” to do the job right.

McDonald had fulfilled unusual requests before, but this was his first surf leg, and the first such leg he’d ever heard of. His team studied old videos of Hess riding waves, noting the angles of his legs and the amount of torque he used to push himself up when he stood. McDonald created a wider foot for greater stability, but then cut it down a bit to allow for more flexibility and ease of motion. In the end, the foot on the new leg was two sizes smaller than Hess’s real foot, an eight instead of a ten.

The finished product was made of titanium and carbon fiber, weighed under four pounds, and would cost around $9,000 if it weren’t covered by insurance. To Hess, the object couldn’t have been more precious, especially since it worked the first time he tried it. Returning to the beach, he paddled out, pushed himself up, and felt his feet find their balance. The wave swelled and carried him higher, but he didn’t buckle or fall this time. He rode the wave all the way to shore, smiling. “I was pretty excited,” he recalls with a laugh.

Hess started hitting the beach regularly to get back in shape. “It really gave me something that I had drive for, which I needed in my life at that time,” he says. He had one leg he used for walking, and one for surfing. When he’d wear the walking leg out, he’d send it up to Walter Reed, where they would convert it into a surfing leg, drilling new holes and using carbon-fiber plates to keep it light. “We’ve probably made four different legs, adapting the foot or the way the socket is made, to come up with where we’re at now,” Hess says. McDonald introduced another innovation, gluing treads from Hess’s surfing booties to the bottom of the artificial foot so it wouldn’t slip.

Hess got so proficient with the surf leg that he began working with Wounded Warriors to teach other vets the sport. In March 2020, he traveled to La Jolla, California, to ride in the AmpSurf ISA World Para Surfing Championship. He returned to Panama City rejuvenated, and when his buddies recruited him to go surfing early the next morning, he assembled his surfing leg and headed for the beach.

That day, after an hour on the water, Hess decided his leg wasn’t right. He swam back to the boat, checked everything, and wrapped tape around it for reinforcement. Dropping back in, he paddled ahead of an approaching wave, feeling the water swell as the wave curled and lifted him. But when the wave broke, he got “clipped by the lip,” he says—hit by the top part of the wave—and the leg was knocked away from his body.

Legless and bobbing, Hess barely had time to register the loss before he was hit by another wave, then another, then another. Grabbing his board, he hoisted himself onto it and bodyboarded to shore, where his buddy Moe was waiting. “Dude!” Hess shouted. He struggled to prop himself up on his knees against the crashing waves. “You gotta come help me!” Moe ambled over, busting Hess’s chops as he assisted him in getting to the beach.

As the waves rolled to shore, the leg didn’t wash up. Hess and his friends looked for it over the next few days, but didn’t see it. Then a swell hit the area, turning the water murky and black. The leg was gone.

Back home, Sebastian scraped the barnacles off the leg and invited his friends over for a look. He ran various possibilities through his mind about what had happened. Was the leg’s owner on a boat and his friends knocked it over the side somehow? Was the person a diver who’d lost it?

Sebastian knew that the best place to reach the owner was online. He didn’t have a Facebook account, but his dad created a dedicated page and uploaded a photo of the leg, along with details about where and when it was discovered. “Please help Sebastian find the owner of this treasure he found at the Panama City jetties while he was scuba diving,” Bobby wrote.

Hess had given up on the lost leg and was even trying to make a new one from scratch, when a friend tagged him about Bobby’s post. The second he saw it, a couple of days after Bobby put it up, he knew it was his. “Hey, man,” Hess wrote, “it seems like you found my leg.”

Bobby called home, woke Sebastian, and told him the good news. “Hey, buddy, guess what,” he said. “We found the person who owned the leg!” Sebastian was ecstatic.

A few days later, Elizabeth and Sebastian took the leg to a beach restaurant called Shunk Gulley, and other customers stared as they entered. “I’m sure they were wondering, What’s up with the kid with the leg?” Sebastian says. Hess walked in, wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt with surfers on the front. Sebastian knew it was him, and Elizabeth says she’d never seen him smile that wide before. “It was great to see how happy he was.”

Sebastian and Hess quickly bonded over their crazy connection and shared love of diving. When Hess told him the story of how he’d lost his leg in Afghanistan, and what the surfing prosthetic had meant for his recovery, Sebastian saw the story in a whole new light.

“I couldn’t believe he had any problems with depression,” he says. “He is so funny and fun loving.” Learning about what Hess had endured and sacrificed left Sebastian feeling humbled. “I knew I needed to give this man respect,” Sebastian says. “He’s been through a lot.”

Carter Hess and Sebastian on the day the leg was returned
Carter Hess and Sebastian on the day the leg was returned (Photo: Courtesy Elizabeth Morris)

Last summer, on a blistering day in early August, Sebastian and his dad were back where they felt most at home: searching for treasure off the coast at Panama City Beach. Sebastian was scooping up the pedestrian bounty that litters the seafloor, like goggles, snorkels, and sunglasses. Back onshore, he schlepped the bag of lost items around, sharing the wealth with others. “All these little kids run up to Sebastian, and he’s just giving things out left and right,” Bobby says.

Such is the life of Florida’s most famous treasure hunter—a title Sebastian earned after news about the leg spread from CNN to USA Today. The attention isn’t lost on Bobby, who makes it a point to tell beachgoers the story. “My dad just loves mentioning it,” Sebastian says.

As for Hess, since getting the leg back, he’s been surfing around the country, and he has plans to move to Hawaii to work in a surf shop and ride. But before he goes, he hopes to find time for a dive with Sebastian.“It was really cool of him to make the effort to return the leg to me,” he says. “I think that says a lot.”

Sebastian considers the experience a great gift. “Not only did someone lose a leg,” he says, “but I was able to give it back. And because it was someone in the military, it has even more value. It wasn’t just some regular leg.”