The History Of The Nuestra Senora de Atocha and Mel Fisher – Key West’s Most Celebrated Treasure Hunter

The History Of The Nuestra Senora de Atocha and Mel Fisher – Key West’s Most Celebrated Treasure Hunter

Mel Fisher was a famous American treasure hunter who dedicated his life to finding lost Spanish shipwrecks and their bounty of artifacts. His immense determination against huge odds led him to locate one of the richest hauls in history – the wreck of the 17th century Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Fisher’s turbulent life tracking treasure and his eventual triumph made him an iconic figure in Key West, nautical archaeology and salvage diving.

Long before becoming America’s most well-known treasure hunter, Mel Fisher was born in 1922 in Indiana to parents of modest means. From a young age he was fascinated by tales of pirates hunting for treasure, foreshadowing the adventurous and risk-taking path he would ultimately take. During World War II, Fisher served in aircraft repair for the Army Air Corps in the South Pacific which sparked a lifelong passion for diving.

After the war, Fisher tried his hand at various careers including running a cleaning supplies company. However in 1955, he read a Readers Digest article detailing the incredible riches of old Spanish galleons that sunk off the coast of Key West, Florida while en route back to Spain. These ships were packed with gold, silver and precious jewels mined from the Americas to finance the Spanish empire. Fisher became completely captivated by the idea of discovering such lost Old World riches.

Fisher eventually sold his cleaning business and everything else he owned to finance purchasing his first ship. He assembled a small crew of divers, archaeologists and investors who believed in his dream of treasure hunting old Spanish wrecks. His new company was called Treasure Salvors. For many years, the treasure hunting expeditions searched extensively but only yielded modest finds that barely financed each next trip.

Fisher’s big breakthrough came in 1961 when Treasure Salvors uncovered a few cannons and gold coins worth thousands. While not a vast fortune, it provided proof they were on the right track. Over the decade the company located additional small caches of Spanish gold and artifacts, but the mother load still eluded them even as money ran low.

By their 16th year of treasure hunting, significant financial strain made many of Fisher’s original backers divest from the struggling company. At one point in time Fisher lost ownership of his house, planes and boats to pay off company debts and was even briefly imprisoned for contempt of court over legal judgments.

However Fisher’s unwavering tenacity inspired some loyal crew and new investors to stay alongside him on the hunt. Fisher’s steadfast wife Dolores also mortgaged her assets to help finance more ship equipment. Fisher knew the riches had to be out there somewhere amongst the challenging currents of the Florida Straits.

In July 1985, after years of heartbreaking financial turmoil while hunting treasure, Fisher finally caught his big break. Treasure Salvors uncovered proof of the holy grail of Spanish wrecks – the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. The fabled galleon was thought to contain untold wealth as one of the richest vessels in the entire Spanish fleet when it tragically sank in 1622.

When Fisher inspected the site, he saw bronze cannons bearing the crest of the Spanish king Phillip IV, confirming it as the long-lost Atocha. Large cache’s of silver bars were also hauled up, promising this was just the tip of the iceberg. The salvage team raced to excavate the debris field before looming bad weather. In the final minutes, they struck gold – literally! Up came coins, Columbian emeralds, and golden figurines.

News spread internationally of Mel Fisher’s momentous Atocha shipwreck discovery after nearly going bankrupt for over 20 years chasing his dream. The excavation carried on over the next five years, garnering tens of millions of dollars worth of treasure. This included over 1,000 silver bars, 250,000 Spanish silver coins, Columbian emeralds, thousands of gold coins and intricately crafted gold chains and jewelry.

Legal wranglings over ownership rights lasted years between Fisher’s company and the Florida and U.S. government. Ultimately though, the Supreme Court affirmed Mel Fisher’s exclusive salvage rights and he became extremely wealthy seemingly overnight after his lifelong struggle finding treasure.

Fisher revelled in the hard-won fame and fortune, maintaining his adventurous spirit and quirky demeanor despite now being a rich celebrity. He spent some of his newfound wealth on purchasing his dream boat and plane. Fisher also had a new mansion built in Key West shaped like a Spanish galleon, befitting his new status as America’s preeminent treasure hunter.

Generously sharing his success with those who stuck by him through thin times, Fisher divided up millions in profits among early company investors and support staff. As a tribute to his wife Dolores’ steadfast support even when bankrupt, he gifted her a 3 million dollar emerald necklace from the Atocha’s precious stones.

Though comfortably wealthy in his 60s and having checked off his life’s goal finding the Atocha, Fisher never stopped pursuing new treasure leads. He set out on fresh deep-sea salvage expeditions near the Dry Tortugas islands, undeterred by massive hurricanes that often disrupted search efforts. True to his indefatigable spirit and thirst for adventure, Mel Fisher hunted lost fortune for the rest of his life.

On December 19, 1998 at age 76, Fisher passed away from liver cancer after becoming an American folk hero. Thanks to his tenacity against extraordinary odds, he achieved his wildest dreams of discovering Spanish treasure and forever changed the landscape of nautical archaeology. Today the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in Key West commemorates his amazing life showcasing artifacts from the Atocha and running salvage expeditions that carry on Fisher’s legacy for future generations.

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