The Wreck Of The Nuestra Senora de Atocha
There are few things in this world that evoke the emotion and dreams more than treasure hunting. Treasure hunting movies tend to focus on far off locations, that are both beautiful and remote. The treasure is often hidden in the sand and after removing a few shovel fulls, the shovel thunks against the trunk full of gold coins and pearl necklaces.
In real life, treasure can be hidden anywhere. During the 1600s and 1700s hundreds of ships crossed the Atlantic back and forth from Europe and the Americas. These ships carried any cargo that you could think of. From spices, to arms, to gold and jewels. Thanks to unpredictable weather, pirates and shallow rocks, many of these ships were lost at sea.
In 1622 the Nuestra Senora de Atocha sunk off of the Florida Keys. The Atocha was carrying silver, gold and gems from Columbia, en route back to Spain. The Atocha was lost for centuries, until a modern treasure hunter found the sunken ship.
Searching For The Treasure
The Atocha sank in approximately 55 feet of water. That was too deep for breath holding divers to reach at the time, but easily within reach of modern divers using SCUBA equipment. Over time the exact location that the Atocha sank was lost. A general location was known, but the actual wreckage had not been located. One man, never lost hope that he would find the Atocha.
Mel Fisher was a pioneer in the field of recreational diving. Early in his life he opened one of the first dive shops, back when the technology was still in its infancy. His love of diving soon met with an interest in history and treasure hunting. He eventually moved to Florida to pursue some of the numerous shipwrecks in the area of the Florida Keys.
Starting in 1969 Mel Fisher and his team started searching specifically for the Atocha. He even invented a device, nicknamed the "mailbox," to assist with the search. The mailbox was a funnel that attached to the prop of a ship, directing the prop wash directly down. By aiming the prop wash directly at the sea floor, large areas of sand could be moved, exposing potential artifacts buried under centuries of sand.
Over the years Mel's team found numerous artifacts that were linked to the Atocha, but the actual wreckage site of the Atocha continued to elude them. While searching the Florida Keys, Mel's team located the Santa Margarita, a ship that had been sailing with the Atocha. While the Margarita, was also carrying treasure, Mel Fisher continued his search for the Atocha.
Treasure At Last!
It is said that Mel Fisher would confidently say, "Today's the day!," each day before resuming his search. He confidently felt that he would find the wreck of the Atocha and remained positive, despite years of searching. Many other people would have given up, but with confidence and the the occasional relic showing them that the Atocha was somewhere in the area, Mel Fisher didn't give up.
On July 20, 1985, after sixteen years of searching for the Atocha, Mel's son Kane, radioed his father that they had found the wreck at last. They had found numerous silver bars on the floor of the ocean. The markings from the bars were matched with the Spanish shipping manifests, confirming that they had in fact, finally found the Atocha.
Among the items recovered were gold and silver bars, silverware, emeralds, jewelry and coins. Many of the coins were extremely rare from the 1500-1600s, providing excellent examples of coinage that was otherwise lost to history. Tools and navigational instruments were also located, providing a glimpse of everyday life and travel at the time. Many of these artifacts are on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West.
As with many of the major discoveries of lost treasure, Mel Fisher's find was not without it's own share of legal battles. The United States government and the State of Florida seized many of the items that had been recovered, claiming that it belonged to the country and state. It took eight years of legal battles, but the U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled in favor of Mel Fisher.
A more recent example of the court battles fought over sunken treasure is the Black Swan treasure, found by Odyssey Marine Exploration. Odyssey Marine located a sunken ship near Gibraltar, vauled at over 500 million dollars, it could be one of the largest treasure finds in history. Odyssey Marine is currently in court against Spain contesting the ownership of the find. For now the identity of the ship is either not know, or is being kept secret, it has been code named the "Black Swan" for the time being, read more about the Black Swan and Odyssey Marine.