It’s true, the Atocha treasure lay in the waters of the Florida Keys for 363 years before it was found

In 1978 when I first lived in the Florida Keys I remember all the talk about the Atocha and the treasures it was carrying. It was neat to walk around Key West and see Mel Fischer at the bars and sea front. He sat and talked with us many times about his hunt for the treasure . He and his quest for the mother load were common place in conversations by the whole town.

Mel Fisher, Karen and Me

I was given the opportunity several times to dive in the Atocha treasure hunt . I never did. The pay was like $50.00 a week. Sometimes all they could pay you was to feed you a meal. I know,I should have done it.

In 1980 gold was found on her sister ship, the Santa Margarita. Twenty Million dollars in gold and silver were recovered. This help keep the search for the mother load alive. Both in funds and in spirits.

The Atocha was a Spanish Galleon. She was built in a shipyard in Havana, Cuba. Her main fire power was 20 large bronze cannons. She was named for a significant religious shrine in Spain. They thought this would bring the ship good luck.

Spain would send her ships to the New World each year to collect gold, silver, fine porcelain and other treasures. They would send the ships in fleets of twenty to thirty vessels. After arriving in the Caribbean they would split up to go to the different countries to load the treasures and goods to be taken back to Spain. They couldn’t leave for the Caribbean until early spring. The Atlantic Ocean was just to treacherous. And they had to leave the Caribbean before the hurricane season got cranked up. This would give them time to get back to Spain before the winter storms caused the Atlantic Ocean to whip up it’s huge waves that so often sank their ships.

In 1622 unusually bad weather caused the ships to be late getting to the Caribbean. While in the Caribbean the bad weather continued. This caused them to get even further behind their scheduled time to leave for Spain.

Coin from the Atocha The fleet ships in Columbia were delayed. The gold and other products they were to take back to Spain had not arrived yet. While waiting they found out that their were 36 Dutch warships on the north coast of South America. They knew these ships would be pursuing them with all intentions of taking their gold and silver for their country. A twelve year truce had been broken with the Dutch. They had joined with the French to attack Spanish merchant and Naval vessels on the open seas.

The fleet got to Havana on August 22, 1622. The Nuestra Senora de Atocha and her sister ship the Santa Margarita were chosen to carry the forty tons of gold and silver. Most of it was loaded onto the Atocha. The fleet left Havana on September 4, 1622. The fleet had 28 ships. They were six weeks behind their schedule to leave the Caribbean. When traveling in a fleet a lead ship is assigned, she is a strong heavily armed vessel. The merchant ships and galleons travel in the middle. A strong heavily armed ship is assigned to follow in the rear of the fleet. This gives the treasure carrying ships the best protection from pirates and other warships.

Atocha Coin Certificate

On September 5, 1622 the winds began to howl out of the northeast. The sky turned black and the seas were building. The sailors lost sight of the other ships in the fleet. They knew they were in the grips of a hurricane. Soon ships began to sink. This continued thru the night. The next day the winds shifted to the southeast. This drove the fleet north, toward the Florida Keys. The hurricane raged on throughout the day. Some of the fleet was pushed past the Dry Tortugas and into the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico. They were able to ride out the storm without grounding on the reef that lays offshore the Florida Keys. The Santa Margarita was pushed onto the reef. Another wave carried her over the reef and into the shallow waters inside, she was aground and sank. Just east of them they could see the Atocha as she was nearing the reef . The crew quickly threw out their anchor. They hoped this would keep them from washing onto the reef. The next wave picked them up and sat them down on the reef. They were battered by 15 foot waves. The mast cracked and broke off. The ship was lifted off and over the reef into the shallower waters. A large hole in the bow kept the ship from drifting very far. She filled quickly and sank in 55 feet of water. The mizzenmast was the only part of the ship showing. Five sailors clung to it all night. They were rescued the following day by another ship from the fleet. The rest of the crew 260 people all drown. A total of 550 sailors drown in this hurricane. Many ships were lost. The wrecks are scattered for 50 miles from the Atocha to past the Dry Tortugas .

Rusty Spines from Ship Wreck It took Mel Fisher 16 years to find the resting place for the sunken ships. On July 20, 1985 the word came over the radio that the mother load had been found. The press came to Key West and the Celebration began.

Soon as the party was over it was realized that even though they found the Atocha treasure, there was no money to raise it from the bottom of the ocean. More investors had to be found. My friend Doug, who was one of the investors approached Mel Fisher with a marketing plan. He was hired and the investors came pouring in. The treasure soon followed. Each time gold, silver and emeralds were brought to the docks the more investors wanted a piece of treasure.

Underwater Metal Detector

Today treasure is still being found. Gold coins and bars, silver coins, cannon balls, musket balls, emeralds and all sorts or artifacts are being found and brought back to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Two gold bars that were found this year have no tax stamp markings. This means they may be on the trail of a secret treasure chest of contraband gold bars. It was thought that twenty percent of all gold and silver collected was smuggled back into the country by the sailors without being taxed.

I’ve always had thoughts of finding treasure on the ocean floor. Every time I’m diving near the reef and especially in Hawk Channel my eyes are searching for ballast stones or something that resembles a ship’s hull. I have an underwater metal detector and have found debris fields that are surely from ship wrecks. I don’t know the age of them. I have found rusty spikes at these dive sites. Some of them have wood grain embedded into the rust. I also know where a piece of a mast is and some other interesting finds. I need for the warm calm dive season with good visibility to last longer here in the Florida Keys to give me time to explore these sites longer. I’ll be sure to let you know if I find a real treasure ship. Here's a great book that can help you find treasure no matter where you live.

The Santa Margarita and the Nuestra Senora de Atocha are just two of the many Spanish Galleons that carried gold and silver in the hurricane laden waters of the Florida Keys. Many more ships are down there keeping their treasures hidden. I’ve been told lots of them don’t have the huge amounts it takes for a commercial operation to have an interest in. But you know what, I sure am looking for them.

Return from the Atocha to Key West

Return from the Atocha to N The Florida Keys