Estimated Value: $400,000,000 (400 Million Dollars)
On September 4, 1622 the Tierra Firme flota of twenty-eight ships left Havana bound for Spain with one of the richest new world cargoes ever assembled; silver from Peru and Mexico, gold and emeralds from Colombia and pearls from Venezuela.
The heavily armed Nuestra Señora de Atocha sailed as Almirante, or rear guard, of the fleet, following the others to prevent an attack from behind the fleet. She’d been built for the Crown in Havana in 1620 and was rated at 550 tons, with an overall length of 112 feet, a beam of 34 feet and a draft of 14 feet.
For the 1622 return voyage the Atocha was loaded with a cargo that is almost beyond belief – 24 tons of silver bullion in 1038 ingots, 180,00 pesos of silver coins, 582 copper ingots, 125 gold bars and discs, 350 chests of indigo, 525 bales of tobacco, 20 bronze cannon and 1,200 pounds of worked silverware!
To this can be added items being smuggled to avoid taxation, and unregistered jewelry and personal goods; all creating a treasure that could surely rival any other ever amassed.
On September 23, 1622, as the fleet passed near the Florida Keys, a Hurricane fell upon them. The Atocha, Santa Margarita, Nuestra Señora del Rosario and two smaller vessels all at the tail end of the convoy received the full impact of the storm.
With their sails and rigging reduced to shreds, and masts and tillers battered or broken, the ships drifted helplessly toward the reefs – all five ships were lost, the Atocha being lifted high on a wave and smashed violently on a coral reef. She sunk instantly, pulled to the bottom by her heavy cargo of treasure and cannon.
Of the 265 people aboard the Atocha, only five survived!
Spanish salvage boats sped to the scene as soon as the storm abated and easily found the wreck. The Atocha’s mizzenmast protruded above the water and her hull was visible fifty-five feet below. Her hatches and gun ports, however had been securely sealed against the storm, and divers could not get into the hull.
By the time the salvagers returned with the heavy tools and explosives needed to break in, the ship was gone. A second hurricane had dismembered her and buried her remains in the churning sands. For five decades, the Spanish searched relentlessly for the Atocha, but she had vanished without a trace.
The Atocha and her treasure remained undisturbed for over 350 years, time and events slowly erased memories of the ship and its name eventually vanished from the lips of all but a few treasure seekers and historians.
Copies of the ship’s register and written events of the times eventually found their way into the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain. These documents, like the treasure itself, were to lay in obscurity waiting for the right set of circumstances centuries later.
The Hunt for the Atocha
The twentieth century was a period of tremendous technological advancement; for the Atocha, one of the most significant occurred in 1942 when a French naval lieutenant named Jacques Cousteau developed the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, or SCUBA for short. It allowed divers to remain underwater for extended periods of time, something the Spanish salvors were not able to do in 1622.
During the 1960’s this new technology contributed to the discovery of ten wrecks from the 1715 Spanish treasure fleet near Vero Beach, Florida. This highly publicized salvage operation, conducted by Real Eight Corporation, ignited an unprecedented interest in Spanish colonial shipwreck salvage, which remains strong to this day. It was this event that drew people such as Mel Fisher into the industry and onto the path of the Atocha.
Mel Fisher – Treasure Hunter Extraordinaire
In 1969, after participating in the 1715 fleet salvage operation, Mel Fisher formed a company called Treasure Salvors Inc. and along with his rag-tag crew launched what was to become one of the most frustrating, costly, yet ultimately rewarding search efforts ever undertaken.
Using sand-clearing prop-wash deflectors, or “mailboxes,” that he invented, and specially-designed proton magnetometers, a device towed behind a boat that can detect metal objects on the sea’s bottom, they spent long years following the wreck’s elusive trail – sometimes finding nothing for months, and then recovering bits of treasure and artifacts that teasingly indicated the proximity of the ship and its cargo.
In 1970 Fisher brought a noted maritime historian named Eugene Lyons on board to research Spanish archives for clues to the Atocha’s whereabouts. Lyons found a report about the initial 1622 salvage operations of the Atocha.
The report cited a ship named the Margarita, one of the other victims of the hurricane, which was documented as having gone down within four miles of the Atocha’s last sighting. Fisher figured that if he could find the Margarita, he could also find the Atocha.
The new research suggested that past exploration had been about one hundred miles off the mark. The Atocha had evidently gone down in the Marquesas, some twenty miles from Key West. The new information kicked the hunt into high gear.
Fisher’s crew dragged their high-tech proton magnetometer over 120,000 linear miles of open ocean before the first Atocha artifacts surfaced in 1971. From then on, Fisher and his crew lived a roller coaster cycle of highs and lows.
In 1973, three silver bars were found that matched the weights and tally numbers found on the Atocha’s manifest which had been transcribed from the original in Seville. This verified that Fisher was close to the major part of the wreck site.
For several years, a small trickle of coins were found, but the bulk of the Atocha’s treasure eluded discovery.
In July 1975, Fisher’s eldest son, Dirk, then twenty-one and captain of the salvage tug Northwind, found nine brass cannon from the Atocha. But the jubilation over the find was short-lived. Three days later, Dirk, his young wife, Angel and diver Rick Gage all drowned when the Northwind capsized.
Their deaths nearly extinguished Mel Fisher’s resolve. “I thought. ‘Maybe it just ain’ t worth it: ” he remembers. “But my son would have wanted me to complete the search, so he said, “Okay, I’ll keep it up until I find her.”
And Fisher did keep it up, pressing onward through a decade of tantalizing but unrewarding individual finds, an olive jar here, a silver bar there.
It was July 20, 1985, the tenth anniversary of Dirk Fisher’s death, when his brother Kane radioed Key West with an exultant dispatch: “Throwaway the charts! We’ve got it. We’ve got it.”
Ecstatic crew members described the find as looking like a reef of silver bars. Within days, the shipper’s marks on the bars were matched to the Atocha’s cargo manifest, confirming Kane’s triumphant claim. At long last, the wreck’s “mother-lode” had been found – and the excavation of what was widely referred to as the “shipwreck of the century” began.
The Atocha yielded a bonanza that was unmatched by any previous ancient shipwreck. Fisher proclaimed it to be worth a total of $400 million. The treasure would continue to rise from the sea for years to come.
Among the items found on the wrecks were a fortune in gold, silver bars, and coins destined for the coffers of Spain; a solid gold belt and necklace set with gems; a gold chalice designed to prevent its user from being poisoned; an intricately-tooled gold plate; a gold chain that weighs more than seven pounds; a horde of contraband emeralds — including an impressive 77.76 carat uncut hexagonal crystal experts have traced to the Muzo mine in Colombia; religious and secular jewelry; and silverware.
Today artifacts and treasures from the Atocha and Margarita are on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.
The Atocha held the title of “the richest sunken treasure the world has ever seen” until 2007 when Odyssey Marine Explorations discovered a still unidentified wreck 180 miles west of Portugal. The estimated value of 500 million dollars beats the Atocha by 100 million.