July 2020 marked the 35th anniversary of the discovery of the most valuable shipwreck in history, the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. Spanish for "Our Lady of Atocha", the sunken Spanish galleon was found on July 20, 1985, after a 16-year quest by famous treasure hunter Mel Fisher.
New World to Old World
By the year 1622, Spain had been sending two fleets each year to South America and Mexico. The Tierra Firme fleet sailed to South America, and the New Spain fleet sailed to Mexico.
Silver and gold mined in those countries were sent overland by mule train to Panama, where it was loaded onto galleons for the return trip to Spain.
Between 1530 and the late 1700s, the Spanish shipped over $8 billion worth of treasure from the New World to the Old World. However, the weather was always a concern, especially during the Caribbean's notorious hurricane season which mostly runs from June 1st through November 30th. In all, over 1,000 Spanish ships were lost to weather and accidents.
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The treasure in 1622 was so large that it took two months to catalog it all and to load it onto the 28 ships that comprised the Tierra Firme fleet. Two galleons, the Atocha and the Santa Margarita were the largest ships in the fleet, and they carried most of the treasure.
Loading the treasure and assembling the fleet had caused a delay of six weeks, and the fleet didn't set out for Spain until September 4th. Just two days later, with the fleet spread out between 30 and 70 miles to the west of Key West, Florida, a hurricane struck. The Atocha and the Santa Margarita along with six other ships were sunk.
Of the Atocha's 265-man crew, all but three sailors and two slaves were killed, and they survived only by clinging onto the mizzen mast of the ship. When news of the disaster reached the Spanish administration center in Havana, Cuba, carried by the surviving ships, authorities sent five ships to attempt to salvage the cargo.
The ships' navigation must have been superb because they were able to locate the Santa Margarita and to recover about half of her cargo. The remains of the Atocha were resting in 56 feet (17 m) of water, and the Spanish never found her.
"Today is the day!"
Mel Fisher was born in 1922 in Hobart, Indiana. As a child, he read Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, and this started a life-long fascination with underwater diving and treasure hunting.
Fisher attended Purdue University, where he trained as a hydraulic engineer. During World War II, Fisher served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and following the war, Fisher sought his fortune in "The Golden State," California. There he became a chicken rancher before opening the first dive shop in the state in the city of Torrance.
After marrying, Fisher opened Mel's Aqua Shop in Redondo Beach, where he gave scuba lessons and sold diving equipment. Soon, Fisher was diving for gold in California's rivers, and along its coast.
In 1962, Fisher moved with his family, which included his wife, four sons, and one daughter, to the east coast of Florida to search for the sunken treasure of the fabled 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet. During this time, treasure hunting was based on British admiralty law, which essentially said, "Finders keepers, losers weepers."
Using his engineering expertise, Fisher invented several pieces of specialized equipment to aid his treasure hunting. One of his inventions which came to be called "mailboxes" directed a boat's prop wash into the sand, uncovering whatever was buried there.
Fisher's specialized equipment proved wildly successful, and he soon discovered over 1,000 gold coins. Then, in 1969, Fisher learned about the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, and he focused all his search efforts on her, motivating his team with the motto: Today's the Day! Little did Fisher know that the search for the Atocha would consume the next 16 and a half years of his life.
First in 1973, and then in 1975, Fisher's eldest son Dirk, who had followed his father into the business, found three silver bars and five bronze cannons from the Atocha. Just a few days after the second discovery, Dirk, his wife, and another diver were sleeping on board a boat when it suffered a bilge pump failure and capsized. Three lives were lost.
Despite this tragic loss, Fisher persevered. In 1980, Fisher discovered the wreck of the Santa Margarita and brought up over $20 million in gold and other treasure. Then, on July 20, 1985, another of Fisher's sons, Kane, radioed his father, "Put away the charts; we’ve found the main pile!" The Atocha had finally been found.
Fisher and his team were able to bring up 40 tons (36 tonnes) of gold and silver, 114,000 "pieces of eight", gold coins, 1,000 silver ingots, gold and silver artifacts and 71 pounds (32 kg) of Colombian emeralds. The salvaged coins bore mint marks ranging from the early 1500s to 1621, and many of these coins had never been seen before.
The haul was valued at $450 million, however, still unaccounted for according to the ship's manifest were 162 copper ingots, 14 bronze cannon, 125,000 silver coins, 433 silver bars, 111 gold bars, and in the sterncastle where the captain's cabin was located, 35 boxes of gems and jewelry. The emeralds on the ship were from Colombia's renowned Muzo Mine, and are the finest in the world.
A scientific treasure trove
While finding the Atocha made Fisher, his employees and investors millionaires, perhaps even more valuable than the gold and silver were the historical artifacts divers were able to bring to the surface. These included rare 17th-century navigational instruments and ceramic vessels.
Also recovered were several bezoar stones, which are egg-sized objects from the digestive tracts of lamas, alpacas, deer, and sheep. It was thought that when dipped into a cup of liquid, a bezoar stone would remove any toxins or poisons, and for the rich and powerful of the 17th-century, these were a strong draw.
Following the discovery, Mel Fisher appeared on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson" wearing one of the enormous gold chains from the wreck. With the State of Florida thus alerted to the discovery, the state claimed title to the wreck and insisted that Fisher give 25% of the treasure to the state.
Never the one to back down, Fisher sued the State of Florida, and it took eight years before the case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. On July 1, 1982, the Supreme Court ruled in Fisher's favor, awarding him full rights to the Atocha's treasure.
Many of the items recovered from the Atocha were placed on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida. In 1987, the U.S. Congress passed the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, which gives states the rights to shipwrecks located within three miles of their coasts.
Mel Fisher died on December 19, 1998, however, he left behind the Mel Fisher Center, Inc., which provides conservation and exhibition facilities for many of the treasures found during his salvage expeditions.
In June 2011, Fisher's divers found an emerald ring, two silver spoons, and other artifacts. The ring alone was valued at $500,000. In 2014, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha was added to the Guinness Book of World Records as being the most valuable shipwreck ever to be recovered and the most valuable treasure ever found in the ocean.