They were four weeks behind schedule. For months, a procession of mules had been arriving at the Veracruz docks, winding their way through the haze of a humid tropical summer, laden with a bank’s worth of treasure bound for Spain. Each piece of silver, each flawless emerald, each gold bar, each bronze cannon needed first be recorded in a ledger, after which it was carefully loaded by a crew of more than 100 sailors and slaves into the bowels of the mahogany-hulled vessel that sat dockside.
At the same time, all manner of unrecorded booty — jewelry, currency, art, all smuggled aboard to avoid taxation — was secretly added to the mix. By the time the ship was ready to depart, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, prize galleon of Spain’s Tierra Firme Fleet, named for the holiest of shrines in Madrid, had had over 40 tons of treasure packed tight within its hull.
When the Atocha joined the rest of her convoy of 28 ships and set course for Spain, it was Sept. 4 — now six weeks later than the fleet had been scheduled to depart, and five weeks into prime tropical storm season. The ships began their journey, with the Atocha holding the rear to ward off attackers.
The following day, as it entered the shallow, treacherous waters of the Florida Straits, a hurricane hit the convoy head-on. By morning, eight ships, including the Atocha, were wrecked. Their remains were strewn across tens of miles, a kingdom’s worth of treasure banished to the bottom of the sea along with hundreds of passengers drowned. Only three sailors and two slaves were able to escape the Atocha’s watery grave; they were found clinging to the mizzenmast by rescuers who could do no more than mark the site of the Atocha’s sunken hull, then move onward to search for survivors of the rest of the fleet.
One month later, a second hurricane would plow through the site, scattering the remains of the Atocha so far it seemed the 112-foot ship had vanished altogether. Spanish salvagers would return to search for the galleon and her legendary bounty for the next 60 years, all returning home empty-handed. In the end, after decades of fruitless searching, it wasn’t a Spanish salvager who tracked down the wreck — it was, improbably, a former chicken farmer from Indiana who finally unearthed the disappeared galleon. His name was Mel Fisher, and he’d spent 16 years searching for the Atocha, telling everyone who asked that today was the day he was going to find it.
Mr. Fisher had spent his childhood dreaming of undersea adventures, reading Jules Verne and designing crude diving helmets in landlocked Indiana. When a postwar discharge found him settled in Tampa, Mr. Fisher was able to realize his childhood dreams by cultivating a love of skin diving. In time, he purchased a revolutionary new technology called the “aqualung,” which allowed him to remain underwater for longer periods of time.
Eventually, Mr. Fisher relocated with his family to Torrance, Calif., taking his love of diving with him. During the day, he worked as a chicken farmer on his family’s ranch. At night, he designed spear guns and diving gear in a feed shed outside. His creations were popular with the locals, and in time he found a community of people who shared his passion for underwater adventure — and, improbably, a bride whose interest was just as keen. They made money diving for spiny lobster, saving enough to open Mel’s Aqua Shop, the first recorded specialized dive shop in the world. Together, they would teach an estimated 65,000 people how to dive.
In 1953 the two set off for a honeymoon spent underwater, exploring shipwrecks in Florida. The Fishers spent the next few years indulging in their shared love of diving, selling lobsters for money, manning Mr. Fisher’s dive shop, and making underwater films for television. An interest in underwater treasure-hunting, spurred by a vacation to Mexico, soon blossomed into a full-scale obsession, and eventually Mr. Fisher put together a crew of like-minded treasure hunters to move to Florida. The team included a welder, an electronics specialist, a diesel mechanic, a cartographer, and, of course, Mr. Fisher’s wife Dolores, an accomplished skin diver who would go on to break the world record for underwater endurance.
The Fisher crew teamed up with Real Eight, a treasure-hunting outfit led by Kip Wagner, who’d spent years searching for an armada of Spanish ships that sank in 1715. The two agreed to work for free for one year, and to split whatever proceeds they salvaged equally. Together, they designed a series of tools for sensing large variations in the magnetic field on the ocean floor, and for blowing clear water down to the silty bottom in order to better illuminate what treasures might be hidden there. Beginning in 1969, Mr. Fisher and his team prioritized their search for treasure, honing in on one payload in particular: Atocha.
Mr. Fisher and his team began a tumultuous 16-year search for the famed Spanish galleon, traveling to Spain to research ancient maps and anecdotal records of the shipwreck. Though armed with copies of faded, centuries-old documents they believed showed the location of the wreck, mistranslated directions and renamed islands led them on a series of futile, lengthy searches costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
But Mr. Fisher was not to be deterred, reportedly beginning each day’s search with the proclamation, “Today’s the day!” The team discovered a handful of cannons, silver and a gold chain attributed to the Atocha’s manifest in the early 1970s, which enabled them to continue to raise money to fund their efforts. Tragedy struck when Mr. Fisher’s son, Dirk, and daughter-in-law, both of whom had worked alongside Mr. Fisher and his crew for years, were killed after their treasure-hunting boat capsized mere days after their discovery of some of the Atocha cannons.
It wasn’t until July 20, 1985, exactly a year from the day of Mr. Fisher’s son’s death, that the hunt could finally cease. A message from one of Mr. Fisher’s fleet of salvage ships, Dauntless, was received back at headquarters: The charts could finally be put away for good; they’d found the main pile of treasure. The excavation of one of the world’s most coveted shipwrecks began.
Teams of archaeologists and conservators gathered and began the lengthy work of stabilizing the long-buried gold, silver, precious gems, rare navigational instruments, gallery wares, seeds, armaments and countless other treasures. Together, the bounty offered a priceless look into 17th-century life, valued at over $400 million. They were immediately flung into a deluge of legal proceedings, with various claims from parties including the state of Florida itself, ultimately finding themselves arguing their right to the treasure before the Supreme Court.
They were victorious, and in 1987, Congress passed the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, giving states the rights to shipwrecks (and their payloads) located within three miles of the coastline. Today, much of the treasure the Mel Fisher group fought to keep is now on display at the nonprofit Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, which sees 200,000 visitors each year. To see it in person and learn more about the incredible journey to find the Atocha, visit the museum at 200 Greene St., Key West. ¦