Herbert “Herbo” Humphreys, the long-time owner of the Holiday Inn and a treasure hunter credited with discovering numerous historic shipwrecks, died Tuesday after a battle with cancer. He was 69.
Mr. Humphreys led an adventurous globe-trotting life and is fondly remembered in Cayman as a pioneer of the tourism industry and an avid wreck hunter.
Former Premier McKeeva Bush said the development of the Holiday Inn in 1972 ushered in a new era for Cayman tourism, bringing the first major brand to the islands and giving many Caymanians their first opportunity to work in the industry.
“He was a nice person and had a special love for Cayman,” Mr. Bush said Thursday.
Master boat builder Kem Jackson worked for Mr. Humphreys, both at the Holiday Inn and as an engineer and diver on his treasure hunting boats, which made frequent trips to the Bahamas in search of lost shipwrecks.
He said he was shocked by his friend’s death.
“He was a wonderful person and a very smart fella,” he said.
Mr. Jackson and Bob Soto, one of the pioneers of scuba diving in the Cayman Islands, were both with Mr. Humphreys when he made his most famous discovery off the coast of Grand Bahama in 1986 – the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de las Maravillas.
Mr. Humphrey’s company, Marex Global, secured salvage rights to the vessel and a crew of seasoned divers spent months diving the site.
Mr. Soto recalled the incident in an interview with the Compass shortly before his death in 2015.
“Coins, swords, gold bars in a chest, you should have seen it,” he said.
“The silver coins were as black as tar and weren’t even recognizable. I found an 80-pound silver bar, equivalent to a 50-gallon drum, as well as a 40-pound gold bar.”
Anderson Humphreys, cousin and close friend of Mr. Humphreys and also a shareholder in the Holiday Inn, said the discovery had been one of the big finds of his cousin’s career.
Anderson, who also made the movie “Cayman Triangle,” said the prize jewel was an emerald-studded cross that was being transported to Spain for Queen Isabella when the ship went down in 1656.
He said he and Herbo had persuaded the actress Cybill Shepherd, who starred in “Taxi Driver” and the “Last Picture Show,” to wear the cross during an appearance on the “Tonight Show” in an effort to bump up its price at auction.
Much of the profits from Mr. Humphreys’ wreck-hunting endeavors went to pay off his investors and the cost of running a fleet of well-equipped boats, according to friends who dove with him, including Mr. Jackson.
Though he made numerous other interesting finds, including a gold-laden paddle steamer off the U.S. coast in 2011, Mr. Humphreys was still searching for the “mother lode” at the time of his death, according to his cousin.
He said Mr. Humphreys continued to run his wreck-hunting business from his home in Memphis and did extensive archival research on the trail of planes that had crashed with diamonds on board and ships that had gone down laden with gold coins and other treasure.
“Herbo kept the treasure-hunting thing going to the end and that is what made him a legend,” he said.
“He was still looking. He never really got the big one that he was after.”
He said he and Herbo were born just days apart and grew up together learning a love for the sea in the Bahamas, before partnering on the Holiday Inn project as young men.
“It is very sad,” he said of his cousin’s death.
“His life certainly was an adventure,” he added. “He was extremely well traveled. We went around the world together.”
Mr. Jackson said he had remained in touch with Herbo and was sorry to hear of his death.
“All I can tell you is that me, him and Bobby [Soto] were like family,” he said. “I can’t remember us having an argument.
“He loved boats; he bought at least four of them and most of the time we were repairing them or away looking for wrecks.”
Suzy Soto remembered many voyages with Mr. Humphreys and friends on his boat, the Beacon.
“I am really upset,” she said. “He was like a son to Bob. I was there for the opening of the Holiday Inn. We all loved Herbo.”
Horst Nowak, better known as the Barefoot Man, performed at the Holiday Inn for two decades and remembered Mr. Humphrey as quiet and down-to-earth. “We would hang out there and have drinks and go fishing,” he said. “He was a regular guy.
“The Holiday Inn was The Ritz of its day. It was the first big hotel to come in to Cayman.”