Editor’s note: The following story appears in the August issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
By Chris Cocoles Photos by Discovery Channel
Venomous vipers. Marauding buccaneers. Buried gold. Sunken galleons. Sound like a rough draft for yet another edition in the long overexposed Pirates of the Caribbean franchise?
Not quite, but Alaska, which barely has any snakes of note within its state borders, has a backstory in the Discovery Channel’s new adventure show with a catchy title. Treasure Quest: Snake Island premiered in mid-July and continues this month, and it should draw attention from two keywords that permeate with viewers: serpents and gold.
A crew of adventurers heads to the rugged Atlantic Ocean just under 100 miles off the coast near São Paulo, Brazil, to Ilha da Queimada Grande (the Portuguese translation of Snake Island), which is home to a dangerous and deadly version of the pit viper, the golden lancehead. Modern-day pirates also are said to cruise these waters as another potential danger.
The Smithsonian magazine referred to Ilha da Queimada Grande as having “the highest concentration of venomous snakes anywhere in the world.” It’s also – legend says – full of a large colony of resident treasures – gold stashed there during the heyday of South America’s iconic Incas.
TV executives can’t get enough of such a storyline of danger and dollar signs, so Discovery sent a motley crew of experts to South America: freediver (and fashion model) Mehgan Heaney-Grier; the obligatory (and possibly insurance-company-mandated) reptile expert, Aussie herpetologist Bryan Fry; vessel captain and treasure hunter Keith “Cappy” Plaskett; expedition leader Cork Graham; and mechanic and Swiss Army knife-style handyman Jeremy Whalen.
Graham and Whalen are no strangers to Alaska, having both spent time here. We caught up with the personable Whalen, who shared some of his adventures in The Last Frontier and a wild motorcycle ride from the U.S. to Peru.
Chris Cocoles How did you get involved with Treasure Quest: Snake Island?
Jeremy Whalen A call out of the blue, actually. Capt. Keith was recruited for the expedition and recommended me to participate. He and I are close friends who have worked on various underwater archeology/treasure-hunting projects in the past.
CC It sounds like from an early age you had a passion for metal detectors. What got you into that?
JW I definitely have a passion for getting outside and exploring. Discovering new and interesting things is exciting, and metal detecting is one way of doing it. When you get in the zone metal detecting, it’s almost meditative. When I was 14 my dad offered to reward me for keeping my grades up in school. My response was that a metal detector would do. So I acquired my first metal detector, a Sears TR Discriminator made by Whites. I took the bus to Idaho and spent the summer metal detecting with my uncle, Dennis Higbee, who, in any circle, is considered a metal detecting god. I was hooked.
CC What was your first experience in Alaska like?
JW Well, getting off the plane in Alaska the first thing I saw were rows of bald eagles in the trees. I’d never seen a bald eagle except on TV and in magazines. You were literally surrounded by wilderness. I grew up at the base of Mt. Si (the backdrop to the cult TV show Twin Peaks) in Washington state and the forests were my stomping grounds. Alaska forests were even bigger and surrounded by ocean and with huge trees. I spent that summer exploring. In my mind I can still see the bears, salmon, sea otters and moose. That was huge to me at 9 years old.
CC You seem like a diehard adventure guy. Were Alaska’s wild and wide-open spaces a perfect fit for you?
JW Topographically, Alaska has so many virgin areas to explore. There is something special knowing that you are probably the first person to set eyes on an area. Alaska is what is left of the United States in its most original state. I would say it is one of my favorite places in the world. Summers in Alaska are surreal with the northern lights and everything buzzing with life.
CC You also have worked as a logger in Alaska. What was that experience like?
JW That wasn’t actually my first job in Alaska. I worked for a month with the Metlakatla tribe emptying out their huge ocean fish traps – huge traps that ran from the shore way out into the ocean. Each had a floating cabin that someone lived in.
I lived with an uncle on the reservation, then got a job logging in Rowan Bay for Alaska Pulp Corporation at the ripe old age of 17. I might have embellished a little when asked how old I was. I spent one summer setting chokers, then two summers working as the “pimp,” also referred to as a second rigger. Basically, I climbed trees and set up the yarder cables that hauled the logs up to the landing where they were loaded onto trucks. I was in the best shape of my life. We worked six days a week, 12-hour days. Living at the logging camp I was able to save every penny. Funny, but some of the things I remember most: the T-shirt I always wore – Hard Rock Cafe-Hell; and also my boss, the hooktender, Jim Miller. He taught me how to race horseflies, climb trees and splice cable.
CC Fellow treasure seeker Cork Graham also has a lot of Alaska ties. Did you share a lot of stories with him during this project?
JW We did swap a few about different places we’d been, and especially about fishing the backcountry. Unfortunately, we were so immersed in the expedition – it was intense – that a lot of those conversations were put on the back burner till we meet again.
CC I’m fascinated by the Alaska/Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s, especially the stories of obsession of those who came to Alaska and the Yukon. Is that a time in history when you would have chased gold there?
JW On one hand I think I’d feel the draw. On the other hand I hate following the herd. I do enjoy prospecting. I’ve always hiked my sluice box and pan into wherever I was exploring in Alaska and spent a good bit of free time hiking and panning for gold. Even with my gypsy lifestyle I still have a huge old bottle full of black sand and a little bottle of placer gold from Alaska.
CC Do you have a love for the outdoors like fishing and hunting?
JW I do. But growing up, fishing and hunting for my family and I was for sustenance. My dad and I would go deer hunting. We’d butcher and package it all ourselves and make sausage. I have some memories as a 5-year-old looking out the screen door on the back porch and seeing a deer hung up with its eye glowing red in the kitchen light. It obviously left an impression. My dad would also bring a bear home once in a while. Mom would render it and make lye soap with lavender – horrible soap! One bar would last years for lack of use. One of my favorite pastimes as a teen was tracking. I’d sketch every type of animal print I could come across. I’d spend all day in the woods, watching and tracking animals. I still have my sketchbooks. My teenage idol was Tom Brown, “The Tracker.” I must have read his book 20 times.
CC You rode your motorcycle all the way to Peru. What kind of memories from that trip can
JW Funny story: at high school graduation the honor students had a luncheon where each one of us stood up and shared what we were going to do after graduation. Everyone basically shared what college, university or military branch they were going into. My turn came and I stood up and said, “After logging in Alaska for five months, I’m going to ride a motorcycle from here to South America. I’ll take about a year. After that I’ll sort out the rest.”
I started the ride with a buddy from the logging camp; I sold him on the idea. But once we got to Mexico and crossed the border he got cold feet and headed back north. I finished the trip myself – the only rule being, no heading north. If I liked a place, I stayed. If I got hungry, I ate. I made some great friendships. I was always sad and happy to be on my way again. I made a point of using only backroads and staying out of cities, even in the U.S. I stuck to small towns and country roads, and I think I had a better sense of the people and culture because of it.
Traveling by motorcycle is incredible – the sense of freedom and being out there. In eight years my brother and I are planning a yearlong motorcycle trip through Eastern Europe, then the east coast of Africa. I’m counting down the days.
CC Your bio describes you as a “modern-day MacGyver.” What is one of your proudest MacGyver-like moments of creativity in a pinch?
JW As a bush mechanic, you have to be creative. I’ll share a MacGyver moment that helped Peru save face with Ecuador. A little background: Ecuador came into possession of a 54-foot sailboat named Karisma that a corrupt politician used to escape from Lima to Ecuador when an arrest warrant was put out for him. All of his property was seized. Except Karisma, of course – she stayed in Ecuador. It has been a point of contention for 10 years between the two countries.
Last year, Ecuador decided to show some good faith and return Karisma to the Peruvian government. It was a big deal. A whole Peruvian Navy fleet showed up with admirals in tow to escort Karisma back to Peru. It was a big ceremony. They contracted us to snazzy up the boat while their two navy mechanics worked on the engine, which was an old and rusty Westerbeke. It wasn’t seized and would turn over, but they couldn’t get it going and worked at it for two days. The ceremony was fast approaching so they brought in a third mechanic. Still no luck.
The night before the ceremony they called me at 10 p.m. and asked if I’d give it a go. My brother, who was visiting, and I went down to the marina and crawled into the greasy, rusty engine room and started tinkering with it. Long story short – we ended up patching a pinhole leak in a hard fuel line with two-part epoxy and electrical tape. It started. They gave me a couple of bottles of pisco in appreciation. Not wanting to chance it not starting at the end of the ceremony, they kept it running all night and through the ceremony until they motored away with the fleet. That was my diplomatic contribution.
CC It looks like you have an obsession with South America. Is there a lot of Alaska to that continent in terms of the vast space and I would assume unexplored areas full of beauty, nature and danger?
JW Alaska and South America in general have a lot in common, I believe, topographically and culturally. People there I believe are more self-reliant and independent. There are potholes and animals to contend with. Weather can be extreme. You can’t go into either without being prepared. You are responsible for yourself and have to depend on it. South America isn’t just tropical – it has all the climates. There are a lot of mountains over 15,000 feet. One is Chimborazo (in the Andes Mountains of central Ecuador); my wife and I hiked for a week around the base of Chimborazo at 12,000 feet. We were totally off the trail. There were wolves, vicunas (a cousin to the alpaca) and pumas. We were freezing, with spectacular scenery. The granite rock faces there would make Yosemite jealous.
CC Without giving away too much from what we’ll see on TV, what was Snake Island like for you and your fellow treasurehunters?
JW It was controlled chaos. There were only so many elements that you had control over and just had to roll with. Again, it was extreme nature. Also, the only way we could gel and work as a team was to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses. That takes time and circumstance. The learning curve was sharp, but in the end I feel like we’re a hell of a team.
CC This is a pretty interesting and diverse group you worked with. Your prospecting and road trips, Cork’s days in a Vietnamese prison to Mehgan’s freediving background, Bryan’s work with snakes and reptiles and Cappy’s zest for treasurehunting. You must have engaged in some pretty good conversations on the boat and when not dodging snakes and looking for gold.
JW Fortunately, no one had any prison time in common with Cork! Cork and I had Alaska-ing and prospecting. With Mehgan it was freediving (I’ve been a freediver for 15 years). I’ve also had my share of reptiles and herp friends, so Bryan and I had that in common. With Cappy it’s everything – we’ve been friends for about eight years. There was a common ground with everyone and never any silence. Lots of near-death conversations with graphic descriptions.
CC Were you born a couple of centuries too late? I have a feeling you would have fit in well as an explorer in the 1500s and 1600s sailing into the unknown and seeing what you can find.
JW I love that era in history. Right after the Dark Ages: the Renaissance. I’m a history buff from between the years 1450 and 1700. That was a time of discovery. It actually formed modern society, but it was also a brutal time in history. Ignorance and religious fervor fueled most of it. I think I’d be more comfortable in the early 1800s.
CC You have a family. Do you ever want to just settle down with a nice house and relax? Or is being on the move looking for another adventure in your DNA permanently?
JW I tried to settle down three times. Mentally, my mind kept going places and my body eventually followed. The first time I bought a house and settled down I had to take sabbaticals for two to four months every year from the company I worked for to stay sane. They were able to hold onto me the longest. When I got back they would always ask me when I was coming in. My son says I have a two-year expiration date. I believe my kids are actually better for it. They relate to any age group, are bilingual, nonjudgmental and outgoing. My son Tristan, from age 7 to 11, traveled with me for three years on the ocean. We bought a sailboat in (Puerto Vallarta) Mexico and sailed for three years through Central America till we landed in Ecuador. He learned more in those three years than he ever would in a conventional school. Currently he is 16 and going to community college, and it’s not because I’m good at home schooling. I have all the worst traits for a
teacher. I think it’s because he is a balanced person. He knows who he is and feels it.
CC You’ve spent a lot of time in Arctic Alaska and in the tropical jungles and waters of Brazil. Do you prefer one climate to the other?
JW Not really: I enjoy both extremes. I think most people live their lives detached from nature. Air-conditioned or heated. Car to house, car to store and car to work. That’s fine, but it’s good to get out and feel part of Mother Nature. It makes you feel alive and part of something bigger than yourself. It makes one appreciate the world we live in. It’s an incredible planet, and being born is like winning the lottery. The odds are over 14 million to 1.
CC Do you have an ultimate goal in what you want to accomplish, or is there no method to the madness? Are you just taking every day that comes at you and adjusting on the fly?
JW There actually is a method to my madness. I always make sure that financially I have options if any opportunities present themselves. What I’d like to accomplish in the end is this: an old me dying on some foreign beach; I’m totally broke but with a smile on my face and the tide taking me out
to sea. ASJ