Treasure Hunting in the Florida Keys

Treasure hunters from around the world have looked at the Florida Keys as a place of rich pickings. The Nuestra Señora de Atocha was one of the most famous fleets of Spanish ships to succumb to the sea. The fleet sank in 1622 off the Florida Keys while carrying copper, silver, gold, tobacco, gems, jewels and indigo from Spanish ports at Cartagena and Porto Bello in New Granada, and Havana, bound for Spain. The ship was named for the parish of Atocha in Madrid.

shutterstock_95125753An unfortunate series of complications kept the Atocha in Veracruz before she could rendezvous in Havana with the vessels of the Tierra Firme Fleet. The treasure arriving by mule to Panama City was so immense that summer in 1622 that it took many months to record and load the precious cargo onto the Atocha. After still more delays in Havana, what was ultimately a 28-ship convoy did not manage to depart for Spain until 4 September, 1622—six weeks behind schedule.

On 6 September, the Atocha was driven by a severe hurricane onto the coral reefs near the Dry Tortugas, about 35 miles west of Key West. With her hull badly damaged, the vessel quickly sank, drowning everyone on board except for three sailors and two slaves.

After the surviving ships brought the news of the disaster back to Havana, Spanish authorities dispatched another five ships to salvage the Atocha and the Santa Margarita, which had run aground near where the Atocha sank. The Atocha had sunk in approximately 55 feet of water, making it difficult for divers to retrieve any of the cargo or guns from the ship. A second hurricane in October of that year made attempts at salvage even more difficult by scattering the wreckage of the ship still further.

The Spaniards undertook salvage operations for several years, with the use of Indian slaves, and they recovered nearly half of the registered part of the vast treasure from the holds of the Margarita. The principal method used by the Spanish for the recovery of this cargo was a large brass diving bell with a glass window on one side—a slave would ride to the bottom, recover an item, and return to the surface by being hauled up by the men on deck. It was often lethal but considered the most effective way of recovering the treasure at the time.

shutterstock_96133076The loss of the 1622 fleet had an immediate impact on Spain, forcing it to borrow more to finance its role in the Thirty Years’ War and to sell several galleons to raise funds. While their efforts over the next 10 years to salvage the Margarita were successful, the Spanish never located the Atocha.

An American treasure hunter named Mel Fisher and a team of sub-contractors, funded by investors and others in a joint venture, searched the sea bed for the Atocha for nearly seventeen years; Fisher had earlier recovered portions of the wrecked cargo of the sister ship Santa Margarita in the early ’80s. He also proposed the idea to several other potential helpers who were discouraged by the fact that this dangerous professional diving job was at minimum wage unless the ship was found. The Atocha wreck and its mother lode of silver, gold and emeralds was finally discovered in July 1985. The salvaged coins, both gold and silver, were minted primarily between 1598 and 1621, although numerous earlier dates were represented too, some of the dates extending well back into the 16th century. Many of the dates and types of the period had been either rare or unknown prior to the salvage of the wreck.

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