By Laura Myers
KEY WEST, Fla (Reuters) – Hundreds of millions of dollars
in silver bars, emeralds and gold chains have already been
recovered from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha,
sunk during a Florida Keys hurricane in 1622.
But the mother lode of treasure discovered by Mel Fisher
two decades ago may not have finished yielding its fortunes,
his heirs believe, and there may be more to come.
“It’s still a trail of gold,” said Mel Fisher’s son Kim,
49, chief executive of Key West-based Mel Fisher’s Treasure,
the umbrella firm of the family’s 30 related companies.
The 110-foot (33.5-meter), 600-ton Atocha — one of a fleet
of ships laden with priceless gold, silver, emeralds and
Catholic artifacts — sank on September 5, 1622, near the
Marquesas Atoll, about 35 miles southwest of Key West, off the
southern tip of the Florida peninsula. On board, 260 passengers
died, while five survived by clinging to the mizzenmast.
Mel Fisher, known for saying “today’s the day,” and his
family searched for the Atocha treasure for 16 years,
weathering daunting debts and ridicule.
In a life-changing moment 20 years ago, they found treasure
from the Atocha worth an estimated $200 million to $400 million
at the time, and Kim Fisher believes loot worth a further $500
million still lies in the ocean.
HUNT HAUNTED BY TRAGEDY
In its long quest to find the Atocha, the family even
endured the tragic death of oldest son Dirk and his wife on
July 20, 1975, when the salvage boat Northwind capsized during
the night — 10 years to the day before the treasure hoard was
found. Dirk had located some of the Atocha’s 11-foot
(3.4-meter), 3,600-pound (1,633-kg) bronze cannons just days
before. Diver Rick Cage was also lost.
“It was devastating,” Kim told Reuters. “We almost threw in
the towel. We decided Dirk would want us to continue. I think
it actually made us try harder.”
On July 20, 1985, a magnetometer capable of tracking
cannons and cannon balls revealed a seabed target at a 55-foot
Divers Andy Matroci and a colleague discovered 1,041 silver
bars and hundreds of boxes, each with 3,000 coins. Other
treasure included 127,000 silver coins, 700 emeralds and likely
contraband consisting of 2,500 lighter stones, heavy gold
chains and jewelry, silver and crucifixes.
Ninety percent of the original mother lode has been
distributed to investors, crew and the Fisher family.
But Kim Fisher estimates there is another $500 million
worth of undiscovered treasure.
Among the suspected riches would be 300 silver bars
weighing 80 pounds (36 kg) each, 100,000 coins, eight to 10
bronze cannons and treasure from the stern castle, an area of
the ship where the riches of nobility, clergy and first-class
passengers were stored.
“There were 35 boxes that the Church had on board. They
always had good stuff,” Kim said.
Much of the treasure was contraband.
St. Augustine, Florida-based historian Eugene Lyon, who
researched the Atocha on a trip to Spain for Mel Fisher,
believes that most of the treasure’s emeralds, for example,
“Smuggling was not just a cottage industry but a national
industry. Some of these Spanish wrecks were carrying way above
what they were supposed to be carrying,” added Jim Sinclair,
48, a St. Augustine, Florida-based marine archeologist who
worked as a Fisher treasure hunter during the mid-1980s.
Diver Matroci, 50, recently found a 9-inch, 22-carat gold
chain and more than 30 coins. “We’re finding treasure all the
time,” he said.
Matroci still captains a crew of five on the 100-foot
(30.5-meter) salvage vessel Magruder, working shifts of about
12 days, depending on the weather. They use sensors such as
magnetometers to scan the sea bed. Each find is tagged using
global positioning systems.
“Mel gave me a career I never knew existed and 25 years
later I’m still doing it,” said Matroci, who’s logged more than
21,000 hours underwater.
Mel Fisher, known to his crews as the optimistic “Uncle
Dad,” died of bladder cancer in 1998 at age 76.
He became a cult hero among salvagers when he won a U.S.
Supreme Court victory in 1982, three years before the actual
discovery, over ownership of the treasure if he found it. The
U.S. government had claimed that it was the owner of any
treasure because, under common law, it was the successor to the
prerogative rights of the monarch of England, but the court
ruled 5-4 that any treasure belonged to Mel Fisher.
These days, Spain often lays claim to any likely treasure
found from the wreck of one of its old sailing ships.
“With treasure finds now, the status is that it’s a lawsuit
from the time you find it,” said David Paul Horan, the attorney
who represented Fisher in his legal battles.
Key West last month celebrated the 20th anniversary of the
Atocha treasure find with a rowdy bikini contest. Middle-aged
men and women swilled rum and Coke and danced the hokey-pokey.
“It’s all part of my father’s legacy. If you have a dream,
go for it,” Kim said.
“My dad’s last words to me were, ‘Don’t let the small stuff
bother you.’ I still do the same things I always did. I never
used to worry about money. It really hasn’t made any
difference. It’s an incredible thrill to find gold and
emeralds. It’s too much fun to quit.”