Ship of Silver and Gold

Twenty-two years ago, the newspaper reported that a salvage diver named Mel Fisher had discovered the lost treasure of a Spanish galleon sunk in a 17th century hurricane off the Florida Keys. We've been interested in the story ever since.

Built in 1620 during the height of Spain's quest to rule the seas, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha sailed under the command of the greatest naval fleet of the time. The Atocha was primarily a transport vessel, bringing gold, silver, copper, tobacco, and emeralds from the New World back to King Phillip IV, the sixteen year-old ruler known more for frivolous amusements than governance (how a teenage kid can be crowned as king has always been a mystery to us; the dimbulbs who pack our groceries at Country Market barely get that job done right. No wonder Spain is no longer a world power). In September of 1622, the Atocha sailed between Havana and Key West with a known load of 250,000 silver coins, 1,200 silver ingots, and 160 gold bars. Intentionally absent from her manifest were boxes of gold destined for the Catholic church and the smuggled treasure of her crew (one thing the 17th century friars and smugglers had in common: keep their gold a secret).

On September 6, 1622, a hurricane pushed the Atocha into Marquesas reef, thirty-five miles west of Key West. Massive waves hurled the ship beyond the reef and she completely disintegrated and sank in fifty-foot water. 260 passengers and sailors died that merciless day, and a bounty of silver and gold disappeared under the sandy ocean floor. Until Mel Fisher came looking.

Driven by big dreams, Fisher was a hard-scrabble treasure hunter with a flair for big schemes. Depending on if he owed you money or not, Fisher was either a heathen or hero. He ultimately spent twenty years searching for the Atocha, and his story is one of lucky breaks and tragic events, peaks of joy and deep valleys of sorrow. At times, he was nearly bankrupted by the search. And in the end, despite the payoff, the Atocha cost him dearly.

Fisher's obsession with the Atocha started in 1964, when he found 1,000 gold doubloons scattered across a sandy reef. The discovery led him to skipper a small flotilla of rusty trawlers and a rag-tag crew of salvage divers who were sometimes paid, sometimes not. Their search and recovery method involved criss-crossing an area with a magnometer looking for debris on the ocean floor (which could be the wreck of some unknown nineteenth century banana hauler or a WWII German submarine), and then anchoring the boat and placing a large metal deflector against the boats three propellers. The propellers, each nearly four feet in size, would spin and the deflector would angle the force towards the ocean floor, churning up centuries of sand and sediment.

And for twenty years, Fisher's boats went out every day and aside from a couple of rare items, the wreck divers came back with little more than occasional handfuls of silver coin or a rusty musket. They weren't even sure they were working the Atocha until July of 1975, when Fisher's oldest son Dirk found several cannons with engraved markings traceable back to the original 1622 manifest. Until that joyous day, they were purely speculating the discovery wasn't one of the countless random shipwrecks that dotted the dimestore treasure maps.

Tragedy on two of Fisher's boats almost derailed the salvage effort. In August of 1973, the eleven year-old son of a National Geographic photographer was sucked into the propellers of the Southwind and killed instantly. In 1975, Fisher's oldest son Dirk and daughter-in-law and a crew member drowned after the Northwind listed and capsized due to a gasket rupturing in the ship's toilet. Their deaths occurred the day after Dirk found Atocha's marked cannons.

Fisher's search for the Atocha treasure had become a long running joke among the dock rats and bar flies in Key West. Then, to everyone's amazement but his own, Fisher's persistence paid off. In July of 1975, a pile of silver bars as long as a semi-truck was discovered, with lobsters nestled in every crevice and a WWII dummy bomb sitting in the middle. The mother lode had been located. Two days later, Jimmy Buffet strummed his songs from atop the heap of silver ingots at the dock. A month later, some $400,000,000 worth of silver and gold had been pulled from the depths.

The Atocha story continues, but as you might expect, it becomes mired in court battles and legal squabbles and things we have little interest in writing about. So we'll stop here. Mel Fisher died in 1998 and never enjoyed the fruit of his toil. But his legacy lives on at his museum in Key West, and in ocean waters thirty-five miles to the west, where to this day, divers continue to find treasures buried under the sand. For sale last week on the bargain rack at the Mel Fisher treasure store were two gold bars found by a diver in 2006, each priced at $110,000. If we had the money, we would have bought them.


Cat House

One of the most famous tourist attractions in Key West is the Hemingway Home, located one block west of Duval Street and the pubs Hemingway regularly bellied up to between 1931 to 1941. The residence was more or less a base camp for Ernest, as he spent considerable time in Spain covering the civil war (or was on one of his many testosterone and whiskey fueled African hunting safaris). Today, in addition to being a place he sporadically laid his head on a pillow, the house has two legacies: where he wrote some of his finest works (including The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber and Snows of Kilimanjaro), and where forty-eight descendants of Snowball, his six-toed pet cat, now reside.

Sign of feline habitation is prevalent throughout the property. Cats saunter in and out of every room in the residence and lounge lazily in the shade on the flat stone walkways in the garden. They have their own ornate drinking fountain (a former porcelain urinal from Sloppy Joe's Saloon that Ernest emptied his bladder into countless of times. There's some irony in this). A corner of the curtilage has been dedicated as a cat cemetery, with little gravestones permanently memorializing past kitties like Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra. They even have their own website, which is all fine and good, but considering all the feral cats we saw wandering the streets and alleys of Key West, we had to wonder: how many of Snowball's "descendants" are local vagrants who jumped the brick wall after whiffing a cat in heat or a dish filled with Friskies cat chow? It was a question our tour guide wouldn't answer.

While the home was intentionally decorated to appear as though Ernest and second wife Pauline had moved out last week, there were numerous indicators to the contrary. Like the swimming pool filled with chlorinated fresh water. Back in the thirties, when the only source for fresh water on Key West was the rainwater collected in cisterns during the wet season, the pool was filled with salt water that quickly turned fetid in the sub-tropical climate. Now it looks nothing like the bacteria cesspool that needed constant draining and cleaning. And inside the home, the walls are adorned with schlock pastels of sea scapes painted by "local artisans" and framed cancelled checks to Abercrombie and Fitch (which was a safari outfitter decades before the company name was used to sell overpriced jeans to tweenies at suburban malls). We had to ask- is this how Hemingway really decorated his home? Again, the tour guide wouldn't (or couldn't) answer.

A notable answer to our unanswered questions, perhaps, is that when Hemingway sold the property he specifically asked the home not be used as a tourist attraction. Obviously, his wish went unheeded. Maybe that's a good thing. Now commoners like us can gander at the room where he typed out some of the greatest American prose ever written while standing (he once compared writing to bullfighting and said neither could be rightly accomplished sitting in a chair). But somewhere in the absurd preservation effort, the essence of Hemingway has been lost. Historical reverence has been replaced by Snowball refrigerator magnets and other trite knick-knacks in the gift shop.

And all the cats. Criminy. Fresh cat turds dot the walkways like landmines on the Ho Chi Minh trail. We have to believe, that if Hemingway awoke from his grave tomorrow and made a return visit to his former Key West home, the first thing he'd do after walking through the front gate is step in a pile of cat shit. The second thing the ghost of Hemingway would do is get rid of all the hissing six-toed pests who think they own the place and get a dog.


Keys Disease

A palm tree dances in the ocean breeze, Islamorado, Florida. It's a sure sign we're about to be stricken with a bout of Keys Disease, brought on by the intoxicating mix of beaches and boats, bikinis and bait strikes.

I know I don't get there often enough
But God knows I surely try
It's a magic kind of medicine
That no doctor could prescribe

I used to rule my world from a pay phone
And ships out on the seaBut now times are rough
And I got too much stuff
Can't explain the likes of me

But there's this one particular harbour
So far but yet so near
Where I see the days as they fade away
And finally disappear

Storm clouds build under the mid-day sun, oceanside of Marathon Key.

As the son of a son of a sailor,
I went out on the sea for adventure,
Expanding their view of the captain and crew
Like a man just released from indenture.

Old motors lie in permanent salt air repose, near Marathon.

Mother, mother ocean,
I have heard you call,
Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall.
You've seen it all, you've seen it all.

Watch the men who rode you,
Switch from sails to steam.
And in your belly you hold the treasure that few have ever seen,
most of them dreams, m
ost of them dreams.

Bar Olympics include toss the coin in the grouper's mouth at Capt. Tony's Saloon, Key West.

I went down to Captain Tony's to get out of the heat
When I heard a voice call out to me,
"Son, come have a seat"

I had to search my memory as I looked into those eyes
Our lives change like the weather but a legend never dies

Bob and Kathy enjoy a pina colada and mojito at the Cheeca Lodge tiki bar.

Boat drinks. Waitress, I need two more boat drinks. Then I'm headin south 'fore my dream shrinks.

I gotta where it's warm. I gotta go where there ain't any snow,where there ain't any blow,'cause my fin sinks so low. I gotta go where it's warm.

Bob skewers baby octopus in sweet jalepeno sauce for a morning snack.

Nibblin' on sponge cake,watchin' the sun bake; All of those tourists covered with oil. Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing. Smell those shrimp--They're beginnin' to boil.

Pelicans menace fishermen for a handout at the Futura Yacht Club marina.

Don't want to land in Comanche Sky Park,
or in Nashville, Tennessee.
I don't want to land in no San Juan airport or the Yukon Territory.

Don't want to land no San Diego.
Don't want to land in no Buzzards Bay.
I don't want to land on no Ayahtolla.
I got nothin' more to say.

The sun slowly fades as another beautiful day ends. Thanks, Jeff- we owe ya one.

Stay tuned: we'll visit Hemingway's Key West home, fish the shallows for barricuda, sail aboard the Liberty, and search for millions in silver and gold from a 1622 shipwreck (it was easy to find).

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