Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, FL

The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in downtown Key West, Florida was photographed by Marc Averette on June 23, 2008.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in downtown Key West, Florida was photographed by Marc Averette on June 23, 2008. | Source

Nuestra Señora de Atocha

On September 4, 1622, Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon (warship) began its journey from the New World to Cadiz, Spain. The Atocha was the Almirante (rear guard) in a 28-ship convoy which left Havana, Cuba well into the hurricane season.

Shipwreck

Winds became strong on the evening of September 4th and increased in intensity throughout the night. The Atocha and the four ships immediately in front of her in the single-file convoy— Nuestra Señora del Rosario, Santa Margarita, and two smaller ships— received the full impact of the hurricane. The ships’ sails were torn and their masts were broken. Helpless, the five ships drifted toward the coral reefs near the Dry Tortugas, a small group of islands west of Key West, Florida. All five ships were destroyed.

Most Expensive Cargo Ever Assembled

Nuestra Señora de Atocha is said to have carried the most expensive cargo ever assembled—silver bullion, newly-minted silver coins, silverware, gold bars, copper ingots, emeralds, pearls, and jewelry owned by the wealthy passengers.

Attempts to salvage the cargo of Nuestra Señora de Atocha began immediately after the disaster in 1622 and have continued to the present day. This article describes the Atocha salvage efforts, in particular those of treasure hunter Mel Fisher and his associates. Many of the items salvaged by Fisher's team can be seen in the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum located in downtown Key West, Florida (FL).

The museum is not the easiest place in the United States to which to drive, but I highly recommend you do so should you be in Florida and have time to spare. I'm so glad I visited the museum and saw the treasures salvaged from Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita.

Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

A marker200 Greene St., Key West, FL 33040 -
[get directions]

Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

200 Greene Street
(corner of Whitehead Street)
Key West, FL 33040
305-296-6533

Mon to Fri ... 8:30 am to 5:00 pm
Sat and Sun ... 9:30 am to 5:00 pm

Adults: $12.50
Students: $10.50
Children: $6.25

Would you visit this museum?

4.7 out of 5 stars from 6 ratings of Mel Fisher Maritime Museum

Havana, Dry Tortugas, and Key West

show route and directions
A markerHavana, Cuba -
[get directions]

B markerDry Tortugas -
[get directions]

C markerKey West -
[get directions]

17th Century Salvage Operations

After Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the four other ships were destroyed in the September 1622 hurricane, the remaining 23 ships in the convoy returned to Havana, Cuba to report to Spanish authorities what had happened. Five ships were immediately sent to the area between the Dry Tortugas and Key West to begin salvage operations.

Nuestra Señora de Atocha was found in 55 feet of water, with one of her masts visible. Fifty-five feet isn’t very deep by today’s standards, but in 1622 all that divers could do was hold their breath, dive down, and hope they saw some bits of treasure caught on the coral. The divers marked the location of the Atocha and searched for the other four ships.

Nuestra Señora del Rosario was found in shallow water. Most of her cargo, not nearly as valuable as that of Nuestra Señora de Atocha, was salvaged.

October 5, 1622 Hurricane

The five salvage ships returned to Havana in order to obtain equipment which would enable them to salvage the cargo of the Atocha. A second hurricane roared through the area on October 5, 1622 while the crews were in Havana gathering supplies and equipment. This second hurricane caused Nuestra Señora de Atocha to break into more pieces.

When the five ships returned to the shipwreck area, the Atocha could not be located. The Spaniards and their Indian slaves spent 10 years searching for Nuestra Señora de Atocha. They were unsuccessful in locating any traces of the ship.

The Santa Margarita was discovered in 1626. The ship was in water shallow enough for breath-holding divers to operate. The divers were able to salvage most of the cargo of the Santa Margarita during the next few years.

Thirty Years War

Salvage activities by Spain ceased in 1632. Spain could no longer afford to send ships to the Dry Tortugas to search for Nuestra Señora de Atocha and her valuable cargo. Most of Europe was involved in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Spain was forced to sell several of her galleons (warships) in order to obtain the funds to finance the country's role in the war.

Private salvage companies continued to look for Nuestra Señora de Atocha for another 50 years. They ended their search in 1682. The ship could not be found. It was thought to be lost forever.

20th Century Salvage Operations: Jacques-Ives Cousteau

Jacques-Ives Cousteau (1910-1997), a lieutenant in the French navy, developed equipment in 1942 which greatly advanced the capabilities of shipwreck salvage operations. Cousteau developed SCUBA equipment—self-contained underwater breathing apparatus—which enabled divers to remain underwater for longer periods of time than they would by just holding their breath.

In 1960, using SCUBA developed by Cousteau, the Real Eight Corporation discovered 10 Spanish treasure ships which were sunk due to a hurricane near Vero Beach, Florida in 1715. The salvaging of treasure from these ships, which is still occurring today, would not have been possible without Cousteau’s equipment.

20th Century Salvage Operations: Mel Fisher

Mel Fisher (1922-1998), a former chicken farmer from Indiana and owner of the first dive shop in California, was a member of the Real Eight Corporation’s salvage crew. The “shipwreck salvage bug” bit Fisher, and he became obsessed with finding the wreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

In 1969, Mel Fisher formed his own treasure salvage company, Treasure Salvors. On July 20, 1985, 16½ years after beginning his quest, Fisher’s crew discovered the wreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha in 55 feet of water, the depth noted in the 1622 Spanish records.

This gun salvaged from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha was photographed by Paul Hermans on March 22, 2011.
This gun salvaged from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha was photographed by Paul Hermans on March 22, 2011. | Source

Mel Fisher's 16½-Year Quest

Mel Fisher and his crew first used equipment designed by Fisher which cleared sand away from the ocean floor. They then used magnetometers—detection devices more powerful than metal detectors, capable of locating very large objects—to search for Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

Fisher spent several years following the trail of debris from the Atocha which had been scattered along the ocean floor ever since the two 1622 hurricanes. The treasure hunters found bits and pieces of artifacts, but neither the Atocha nor any of the other four ships which had been lost at the same time.

Three silver bars were found in 1973, and five bronze cannons were found in 1975. The markings on the silver bars and cannons clearly identified them as having been on the Atocha.

A large section of the Santa Margarita’s wooden hull was discovered on May 12, 1980. By the end of 1980, most of the gold bars, silver coins, and jewelry listed on the Santa Margarita’s cargo manifest had been salvaged. Nuestra Señora de Atocha still could not be located.

These silver bars salvaged from the wreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha were photographed by Daderot on December 9, 2010.
These silver bars salvaged from the wreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha were photographed by Daderot on December 9, 2010. | Source

Nuestra Señora de Atocha is Located

Mel Fisher's son Kane and the crew of his salvage ship Dauntless discovered Nuestra Señora de Atocha on July 20, 1985—16-½ years after Fisher's team began their search. The numbers on the silver bars matched those on the Atocha's cargo mainfest—it was definitely the Atocha which Kane Fisher had located.

Conservation of the Atocha, Her Artifacts, and Her Cargo

The Atocha, her artifacts, and her cargo had lain in the ocean for more than 360 years, so conservation was of primary importance. A team of archaeologists and conservationists was immediately assembled. The items had been preserved in salt water for more than three and one-half centuries. Removing the objects and having the air hit them could cause much of what was found to crumble or be otherwise destroyed.

After a conservation process which took a number of years, many of the items recovered from Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita are on display in the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, Florida. I was amazed when I saw the silver bars and silver coins and the exquisite gold chains and other pieces of jewelry. I find it difficult to believe that Fisher and his crew spent more than 16 years looking for a ship which had been destroyed in a hurricane in 1622—and they succeeded in finding it.

In addition to the precious metals and gems recovered by the Fisher team, the museum has on display many artifacts of 17th century sailing and shipboard life. One can see military weapons, navigational instruments, and objects from the ship’s galley.

A portion of the Atocha’s hull has been recovered. I wish I would have been able to see this, but it’s only available to researchers. The Atocha’s hull is currently located in a protected lagoon at Florida Keys Community College in Key West.

Florida Keys Community College, Key West, FL

A markerFlorida Keys Community College -
[get directions]

21st Century Salvage Operations: Mel Fisher's Team

Salvage operations are continuing to this day. In June 2011, an antique emerald ring—worth an estimated $500,000—two silver spoons, and other artifacts from Nuestra Señora de Atocha were found by the Fisher organization 35 miles from Key West. The rear of the ship, the part of the Atocha in which the captain’s cabin was located, has not been found. Rare emeralds from Columbia are said to be among the treasures which were locked in the captain’s cabin for safekeeping.

Diving for Atocha Treasure

It is possible for an experienced SCUBA diver to pay to go on expedition seeking treasure from Nuestra Señora de Atocha. The following video shows such a diving expedition.

Would you spend 16½ years searching for sunken treasure?

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Comments 32 comments

K9keystrokes profile image

K9keystrokes 4 years ago from Northern, California

Watching the Atocha treasure hunt video was so fun. You have packed in a ton of information about the Mel Fisher Museum. I can only imagine the thrill of finding an old cannon or gold piece on the ocean's floor. This is a real adventure hub!

HubHugs, my friend~


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

India (K9keystrokes),

Thanks for reading my article, viewing the video, and being the first person to comment.

I was glad I found the treasure hunt video. It adds a lot to the overall Nuestra Señora de Atocha picture.

If you haven't already done so, you might like to read my article about the history of Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

I'm so glad when we were in Florida several years ago, we decided to drive to Key West. Seeing the Atocha treasures in Mel Fisher's museum was a terrific experience.


Nell Rose profile image

Nell Rose 4 years ago from England

Hi daisy, fascinating stuff, I don't know if you remember me saying in your last salvage hub, but I would love to do this. Yes for the gold and silver etc, but more for the excitement of discovering the ship after all these years. Watching it on tv, just seeing how the crew have to just pick up one thing that can prove which sunken ship it is, is so exciting, so yes to the museum and even more yes to the salvage! voted up! nell


alocsin profile image

alocsin 4 years ago from Orange County, CA

I'd heard about the Atocha and have read about it extensively in National Geographic. I didn't realize it ended up at this museum. Definitely worth visiting then. Voting this Up and Interesting.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Nell,

Thanks for reading and commenting in my sequel to History of Nuestra Señora de Atocha. I do remember your comment in that article.

Going on one of the dives would be a terrific adventure. Just being there would be great, but finding some treasure...a piece of history...would be outstanding.

The ship's cargo manifest from the 1622 ill-fated voyage appears to be the key in identifying which ship is associated with a given item. What would have happened if that document had been lost, I wonder?


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Aurelio (alocsin),

Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment.

Some items from Nuestra Señora de Atocha found their way into other museums, but most of what was salvaged is in the museum which Mel Fisher founded. It was so incredible seeing the silver bars and other items from the Atocha in the museum!


bdegiulio profile image

bdegiulio 4 years ago from Massachusetts

OMG Daisy. In the 1980s I watched a National Geographic special about Mel Fisher and his quest for the Atocha. I became absolutely fascinated with the story and in 1997 traveled to Key west to see the Mel Fisher Museum. While looking at some of the treasure in a room I noticed a two way mirror that went into an office. When I looked into the mirror at just the right angel I could see that Mel Fisher was in his office. It was an amazing experience, especially as he died shortly after our visit.

Mel's quest for the Atocha made for a great story. I'm sure you know this but one of his son's was killed in an accident while searching for the Atocha. Mel sacrificed a lot to fulfill his life's dream of finding the treasure.

Great Hub. Really enjoyed. Voting up, sharing, etc...


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Bill (bdegiulio),

It's nice to "see" you again. Thanks for reading my article and telling us your anecdote about Mel Fisher. Thanks, too, for sharing my Hub.

I mentioned in my article about five bronze cannons being discovered in 1975. It was Mel Fisher's son Dirk who made the discovery. A few days after he found the cannons, Dirk , his wife Angel, and a diver named Rick Gage were killed when their salvage boat capsized.

If you get a chance, you might like to read my article about the history of Nuestra Señora de Atocha.


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 4 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for the tour and the information. Really interesting.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Martin (Mhatter99),

Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed my Hub.


mackyi profile image

mackyi 4 years ago from Philadelphia

Thanks for sharing this bit of Historical information Daisy Mariposa. To be honest with you, I have never been to this popular vacation spot -- Key West -- however, I have heard of all the fun and excitement it has to offer. As far as Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is concerned, no one has ever mentioned this Historical Museum before. I guess they all forgot to mention this educational piece of the fun? Good information to share. Voted up interesting.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Winston (mackyi),

Thank you for reading my Hub and adding your comment.


rcrumple profile image

rcrumple 4 years ago from Kentucky

Daisy -

This is an excellent follow up to your previous story about the ship and treasure. Well worth waiting for as you've answered many of the questions I had following the first. You really do a great job at this. If I'm ever in Key West, I'll definitely visit the museum. Great Job!


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Rich (rcrumple),

Thanks for reading my article and commenting. I appreciate your continued support of my writing.

I wish I could have included more photographs of the treasure salvaged from Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Unforutnately, the Mel Fisher organization hasn't released them for use by others.

I glad Mel Fisher's organization released the dive video. The videos posted by visitors to the museum were not of a qualityI would want to use.


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa

Great hub, Daisy. I'm actually working on one now about the Key West Shipwreck Museum, which I visited last week and is not nearly as good as the Mel Fisher museum, which I visited on a prior trip to Key West. I'll have to link my hub to yours when I finish it.

I once met Kane Fisher on another visit to Key West years ago. Boy, did he have some good stories to tell.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Deb,

Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment. How exciting that you met Kane Fisher!

I'll be on the lookout for your article and link to it as soon as I see that it has been published.

Have you had a chance to read my article about the history of Nuestra Señora de Atocha?


DeborahNeyens profile image

DeborahNeyens 4 years ago from Iowa

Not yet, but it's on my list! Not sure how I missed it before, especially since I've visited the museum and heard Kane's stories about it.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Deb,

Thanks for visiting again. I might have published the article about the history of the Atocha while you were on vacation.


teaches12345 profile image

teaches12345 4 years ago

I haven't made it the Keys yet, but if I go this place would be on the list of to-do's. I find it interesting that they would even have museums there as I only hear of the fishing, eating and other such activities.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Dianna (teaches12345),

Thanks for reading my Hub and commenting. I appreciate your continued support of my writing.

You might want to add Ernest Hemingway's house and museum to your lists of places to see in Key West. He lived there in the 1930s and 1940s.


Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

This is a great hub on a cool museum. Thanks for bringing back memories. We went here on our honeymoon and stopped into the museum. It was loads of fun, and of course had us dreaming of discovering lost treasures!


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Glimmer Twin Fan,

Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment. I think everyone who visits Mel Fisher's museum dreams of finding shipwreck treasure!


Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 4 years ago from North Carolina

What an interesting article, Daisy. I don't dive, but have family members who would LOVE to do this. Boy, I remember Jacques C's diving expeditions, technology has really improved since his time. It's amazing that Fisher was able to find this ship after over 3 centuries! How cool. Rated up/I


rajan jolly profile image

rajan jolly 4 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

A very interesting read about Atocha, its fate and the search for the missing cargo. I'd never heard of Atocha before. It would indeed be a lifetime experience visiting the Maritime museum to experience the colossal efforts of Mel Fischer's team in salvaging whatever artefacts and cargo they could. your hubs are always so educational and extremely well presented Daisy.

Voted up and interesting.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Denise,

Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment. Like you, I'm amazed that Mel Fisher and his team were able to find Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

We were vacationing in Florida and decided to drive to Key West just to see what the Florida Keys looked like. We hadn't known about the museum until after we arrived in Key West. It was an incredible feeling to see some of the treasures which Fisher and his team salvaged.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Rajan,

Thanks for reading my article and commenting. I appreciate your very kind words. I try to write articles which I call *gently educational*...Hubs which are fun to read, but from which you might learn something new.

If you have time, you might like to read my article about the history of Nuestra Señora de Atocha. It contains a few maps which help set the scene for Mel Fisher's salvage adventures.


Teresa Coppens profile image

Teresa Coppens 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

Amazing article Daisy. I did an article on the Henrietta Marie slave ship. Mel Fisher's salvage team was responsible for discovering her wreck but they left her salvage to another company because of their interest in The Atocha. Great job as usual and a very interesting read!


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 4 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Teresa,

It's nice to "see" you again. Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment. It amazes me that Mel Fisher and his team were able to find Nuestra Señora de Atocha. It's incredible that the team found a ring, two pieces of silverware, and a few other small pieces in 2011.

If you get a chance, you might like to read my article about the history of the Atocha. It explains the circumstances of the 28-ship convoy leaving the New World well into hurricane season.


PegCole17 profile image

PegCole17 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

Daisy, I really enjoyed reading this informative article and learning about these discoveries. Having lived in Key West as a child I wish I had paid more attention when my Dad told us stories about these sunken treasures. What an interesting piece of history. Would love to go back and visit the museum and see the artifacts. Thanks so much.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 3 years ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Peg (PegCole17),

It's nice to "see" you again. Thanks for reading my article and adding your comment.

I hope you get back to Key West some day to visit the museum. Seeing the artifacts that the Mel Fisher team discovered was an incredible experience.

If you have time, you might like to read my article about the history of Nuestra Señora de Atocha. It will give you a lot of background information about the convoy and the destructive hurricane.


Vellur profile image

Vellur 14 months ago from Dubai

Enjoyed reading about the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Mel Fisher and his crew did a great job by finding the ship. It is amazing just to imagine the ship and the artifacts were in the ocean floor for 360 years! Great hub, interesting and informative as always.


Daisy Mariposa profile image

Daisy Mariposa 14 months ago from Orange County (Southern California) Author

Nithya (Vellur),

Thanks for reading my article and adding your comments. I appreciate your continued support of my writing.

Having read about Nuestra Señora de Atocha for many years, I was so glad I visited the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum when I was in Key West.

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