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.

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