It may sound odd, but the star of tonight's debut of "Discoveries Underwater," a new eight-part PBS series about marine archeology, is a constantly chuckling former Indiana chicken rancher named Mel Fisher (Channels 28 and 15 at 8, Channel 50 at 9).
Good-old-boy Mel has good reason to be happy--he's the world's most successful treasure hunter. The salvager/entrepreneur's long and expensive underwater search in the Caribbean for the wreck of a 1620s Spanish galleon paid off spectacularly in 1985 when he found $400 million in gold and silver bars, coins and artifacts.
Tonight's "Treasure Is Trouble" segment retells Fisher's amazing success story, albeit somewhat confusedly at times, and shows the modern techniques that Fisher and other treasure hunters are using to salvage shipwrecks. It contains enough shots of the dazzling treasure that Fisher and his crew found--including a $500,000 gold chain and a gorgeous gold and emerald cross worth $1 million--to make a history museum curator weep.
More significantly, however, it addresses the continuing controversy between archeologists and salvagers over the ethics of treasure hunting. Is Fisher doing little more than plundering history for private gain, as one indignant nautical archeologist claims? Should he and his many investors be allowed to keep their priceless booty for themselves, even if they place it in a vault where no one else can see or enjoy it?
With no loss of viewer interest, all sides seem to get their fair say.
In next week's far less argumentative but equally enjoyable program, several early underwater exploits are faithfully and scarily re-created.
In future installments, this BBC-TV production (in association with KCET) will follow scientists and adventurers as they go underwater to find, document and excavate such things as Bronze Age villages at the bottom of Swiss lakes and a Jamaican town that disappeared beneath the sea after an earthquake in 1692.