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We're seeking legendary Aztec treasure - but finding it may cost us our lives; Special feature RACE IS ON TO UNEARTH FABLED ANCIENT RICHES WORTH BILLIONS.

Byline: EXCLUSIVE BY BARBARA COPPERTHWAITE

A GROUP of scientists claim to have found evidence of a record-breaking hoard of gold which could rewrite history, The Daily Record can exclusively reveal.

Sensationally, they also say their discovery is putting them in danger from mercenary treasure hunters, willing to stop at nothing - even murder - to get their hands on riches.

For hundreds of years people have hunted in vain for the legendary Aztec haul, which their leader Moctezuma supposedly gave to the Spanish explorer Cortes when he discovered their territory back in 1519. Many have written it off as a mere myth, but others, lured by the promise of a find possibly worth billions of pounds, have spent their entire lives searching.

Now a group of scientists say they have found evidence that it really did exist, and are searching for an artefact which holds the key to its location. They are in a race against time though, as violent criminals are following their every move.

"Searching for this treasure has very nearly cost me and my family their lives," reveals Dirk Pitt, director of NUMA, the National Underwater and Marine Agency.

The federal department is tasked with stewardship of the seas, and Dirk oversees a large staff of marine biologists, oceanographers and geologists who monitor the oceans from a fleet of research ships across the globe.

Treasure hunts are not normally in its remit, but the organisation was investigating pollution when it became involved.

"A dead zone had appeared in the Caribbean Sea, and we were getting reports of massive numbers of dead fish and marine mammals washing up on the shores of Cuba, Jamaica and the Caymans," explains Dirk. "We had no idea what was creating them, so we took a research ship, The Sargasso Sea, to investigate."

He was stunned when he coincidentally bumped into his marine engineer son, Dirk Junior, and oceanographer daughter, Summer.

"They had heard about an Aztec stone that might reveal the whereabouts of a vast historical Aztec treasure," says their dad. "The problem was that stone was believed to have been destroyed on the battleship Maine in Havana Harbour in 1898. Their search for it brought them both to Cuba - and squarely into harm's way."

At first, Dirk was busy sorting out the toxic water problem, which was due to illegal uranium mining by people who wanted to ascend to power in Cuba.

"The Cuban government had bad guys making deals with the North Koreans for uranium that would be used for nukes," Dirk says. "Raul Castro was really grateful when I alerted him to what was going on."

Meanwhile, Dirk's children were still looking for treasure in the area. They had no idea initially that they were in a race against famed mercenary treasure hunter, Diaz. But now they are certain he will stop at nothing to get his hands on the gold.

"We've had members of our team attacked.

One person was even hospitalised for several days after being put in a coma," claims Dirk. "We believe Diaz was also responsible for the deaths of a number of people."

He insists that his team will not be "bullied and intimidated" into giving up the search.

"I don't want to say too much now, but this is exciting stuff," says Dirk, speaking exclusively to The Daily Record from on board his ship, which is currently just off the shore of Cuba.

"If we can find the artefact we're searching for, we believe it will turn ancient and modern history on its head.

"We're not just talking about things that happened in 1519. We believe a recent war and government cover-up occurred because of this treasure.

People know more than they are letting on.

"Getting our hands on the artefact will prove it all - and if we can find the treasure too, well, that would be the icing on the cake."

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DEAD ZONE: Fish killed off in the Caribbean

Their search brought them to Cuba and squarely into harm's way DIRK PITT Marine Agency director

CAPTION(S):

FOLLOWED: NUMA boss Dirk

SEARCH SITE: Trail led to Cuba

LOOKING FOR TREASURE: Drilling on the sea bed

INVESTIGATING: Research vessel The Sargasso Sea
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Geographic Code:5CUBA
Date:Dec 12, 2014
Words:797
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