Mel Fisher was arguably the most famous treasure hunter in modern times. Probably because in 1985 he discovered the Atocha, a Spanish galleon that sank off of the Florida Keys in a hurricane in 1622. With over $450 million in treasures found so far from the wreck, including 40 tons of gold and silver, Pieces of Eight, emeralds, artifacts, and over 1000 bars of silver, Mel and his crew were known by everyone in our little island community.
Mel was born in Indian in 1922 and was adventurous from the start. He went to college and then fought in WWII. After the war he moved to California and opened the state’s very first dive shop. He became a pioneer in the dive industry, modifying and inventing gear to make diving more practical. He even filmed serval of his expeditions for fun and to draw people to the sport. As a hobby, Mel dove rivers to pan for gold; this was his first encounter with hunting for treasure.
Soon, Mel ended up marrying his dive buddy Dolores and they honeymooned in the Florida Keys. They went back to California and their dive shop, but they would obviously return to the Keys later on. The Fishers were adventurous and they traveled often to check out different dive sites. In the early 1960’s they met a treasure hunter who had found gold off of the Florida coast. The Fishers decided to move to Florida and take up treasure hunting full time, and they brought a whole team of divers with them from California.
In the late 1960’s the Fishers and their crew moved to the Florida Keys where the weather was warmer, there were more wrecks closer to shore, and they could dive nearly everyday. They initially moved to Islamorada, but decided that Key West would make a better headquarters since they could dive the Marquesas from here much more easily. By 1971the crew began finding indications of a wreck near to the Marquesas. Over the next decade, the crew found jewels, anchors, chains, ship parts, cannons, and more artifacts in the area. But it was not until 1985 that they hit pay dirt. On July 20th while Mel was shopping for new fins, his team found the mother load. Mel first found out by a well-wisher on the street who had heard the local radio broadcast that they found the Atocha.
While the search for the Atocha was exciting and ended up paying off big for Mel and his crew, it did have its problems. Lawsuits with the state over who owned the treasures lasted years. And some of the crew, including one of Mel’s sons, died in a tragic accident on the water in 1975. But this did lead to more safety measure being taken as well as the company becoming experts in recovery and conservation of underwater relics.
Today people can still dive the area with the Fisher crew. And if diving is not your thing you can learn a lot more about one of the Keys most well know residents and see some of the booty of the Atocha at Mel Fisher’s Museum located on Front Street in Key West.