The quest for the Atocha


"Put away the charts; we’ve found the main pile!," came an ecstatic voice over the marine radio. It described a scene that looked “like a reef of silver bars.”

Today is the anniversary of the world's greatest treasure hunter Mel Fisher’s discovery on July 20, 1985, of the wreck of the Spanish royal guard galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The $450 million dollar treasure cache or "Atocha Mother Lode" was the culmination of Fisher’s more-than-16-year search.

Indulge me today as I float down memory lane. Because it’s also an anniversary of sorts for me. I began this Dealer Outlook blog 10 years ago. It’s sometimes hard for me to believe I’ve been blogging twice weekly for that long! So I pause today to say to all who regularly read it, thank you for your support. I hope it has given you information or an idea or two along the way.

But back to today’s more exciting story. I am also well aware this is the Atocha discovery anniversary because in 1970, as a member of the Johnson Outboard Motors public relations department, I had the chance to make a movie about Mel Fisher entitled “Treasure Salvors of the Florida Keys.”

At that time, we had a new product called the Johnson Air Buoy, a basic hookah device that floated on the surface and pumped air down to two divers below. We enlisted Fisher and his team to use our Air Buoy while salvaging a just-found shipwreck off Islamorada in the middle Keys. He hoped it was the Atocha. It wasn’t. It was the Spanish merchant ship San Jose. While she wasn’t a treasure ship, each day for a week we filmed the recovery of a multitude of artifacts ranging from cannon to pottery.

The lost ships of the so-called “1622 Treasure Fleet” were destroyed in a hurricane on Sept. 6, 1622. The wrecks lay scattered across 50 miles. The Atocha actually went down off Key West. For more than 350 years, the sea destroyed and scattered the Atocha remains, using shifting sands and coral to entomb the $450 million treasure cache. The Guinness Book says Atocha is the most valuable shipwreck ever recovered, as she was carrying roughly 40 tons of gold and silver bars and coins, and 70 pounds of emeralds.

The hunt for treasure was always a Fisher family affair. It was his son, Kane, who radioed the discovery to Mel from their salvage boat Dauntless. It was followed by eight years of litigation mainly challenging Florida’s claim to 25 percent of the treasure. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Fisher and, on July 1, 1992, he was awarded rights to all found treasure from Atocha.

Experts believe the stern castle, the part of the ship that would have held more gold and, especially, 70 pounds of rare Muso emeralds, is still missing. Muso emeralds from Columbia are considered the world's highest quality gems of this type. These and other valuable items would have been stored in the captain's cabin for safekeeping in the rear part of Atocha. So the search continues.

Fisher died in December 1998. But today, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West contains many of the artifacts that had been hidden on the ocean floor for three-and-a-half centuries. The museum is well worth a visit and artifacts displayed are a tribute to the vision of a man and his family.

During my week of filming off Islamorada, the Fisher family and team members would gather each morning for breakfast before heading out to the wreck site. Mel and his wife, Dolores, were amazing leaders that would generate excitement and anticipation of what each day might find. And he would end each morning’s briefing with a prediction for the crew that has stayed with me all these years: “Today’s the day!”


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