There’s something about ships, pirates and sunken treasure that’s very intriguing to me, so it was only natural on a trip to Key West, Florida, that I’d include a visit to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.
You might be asking yourself “Who is Mel Fisher?” Well, Fisher was born in Indiana and was a former chicken farmer. He later moved to California and opened a dive shop and so his love of the sea -- and treasure hunting -- began.
Mel formed a company called Treasure Salvors, Inc., and in 1969 they began looking for a Spanish galleon named the Nuestra Senora de Atocha (Atocha), which sank off the Florida Keys in 1622 during a hurricane.
Day in and day out Mel and his crew, which included some of his family members, searched the ocean floor for the wreckage. Mel’s motto was “Today’s the day.”
Finally, in 1973, some silver bars from the wreck were recovered. They were still unsure, however, if they’d, in fact, found the Atocha. Two years later, Mel’s son, Dirk, found five bronze cannons whose markings proved to be that of the Atocha. That’s when they knew they’d finally found it for sure.
Mel’s quest for treasure was not without heartache, though, as only a few days after finding the bronze cannons his son, Dirk, and his daughter-in-law, Angel, as well as another crew member, tragically died when their boat sank due to a pump failure.
Eventually, over $450 million dollars’ worth of treasure from the Atocha was recovered, including 40 tons of gold and silver. Also recovered was 114,000 Spanish coins known as “pieces of eight,” gold coins, emeralds, gold and silver artifacts and 1,000 silver ingots.
After finding the treasure, the State of Florida immediately claimed title to the wreck and forced Fisher’s company into a contract for a portion of the treasure.
Fisher’s company fought the state, claiming his company should be entitled to 100 percent of the treasure. A subsequent lawsuit was filed, Florida Dept. of State v. Treasure Salvors, Inc., which went all the way to the Florida Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Mel Fisher and Treasure Salvors, Inc., and he was able to retain all of the treasure for which he’d spent years looking for. There have been documentaries made of Fisher’s search for the Atocha, as well as a TV movie entitled Dreams of Gold.
Interestingly, it’s estimated that only half of the treasure has been recovered to date. The stern castle of the ship was known to be holding more gold, Columbia emeralds, 300 silver bars and eight bronze cannons, among other artifacts.
Mel Fisher passed away in 1998, however, his grandchildren have inherited his love of treasure hunting and continue to search for the remainder of the Atocha treasure.
I think Mel would approve.