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Treasures of the "Atocha".


Forty miles from Key West (and54 feet down) lies the wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a Spanish galleon sent to the bottom in 1622 by a savage hurricane. Archaeologists documenting the ship call the crushed hull, littered with artifacts, a primary cultural deposit. Its finder-- a treasure hunter named Mel Fisher-- calls it simply "the mother lode.'

A tour of the Key West offices ofFisher's company, Treasure Salvors, reveals why. The squat, three-story building, wired with alarms and patrolled by armed guards, contains much of the cargo of the luckless Atocha. The haul includes 3,100 uncut green emeralds, 78 gold coins, 160,000 silver coins, 32 tons of silver (in more than 1,000 ingots), 115 gold bars and disks, and 78 gold chains.

The hoard is all on public display,arranged as if it were part of a small-time roadside museum. Gold chains worth thousands are draped over aquarium-quality coral pieces and festooned with plastic parrots. Silver ingots, valued in the millions, lie stacked like cordwood on the floor. Fisher reports that tourists come from miles around to behold the wealth. "One thing I get a kick out of is the busloads of kids we get,' he says. "History was once boring to them, but once they see this exhibit, they get excited. I love seeing that.' Fisher even lets young visitors climb the mounds of silver and gold and try on the heavy chains.

Fisher had to wait almosttwo decades for his ship to come in, but that tardiness is typical of the Atocha. It sealed her doom in the late summer of 1622. In that year, Spain ruled the New World with an iron hand, extracting its wealth to fill the imperial coffers of Europe. But Spain's domination of this rich trade was threatened by pirates and foreign navies. Enter the Nuestra Senora de Atocha and her sister ship, the Santa Margarita. Both were heavily armed escort galleons, members of Spain's awesome Tierra Firme fleet, charged with protecting treasure convoys from attack.

Early in that long-ago summer,both ships made a lazy circuit of various ports of call in Central America and the West Indies and took on larger and larger loads of precious metals and wealthy passengers. The ships' last stop was Havana, where they linked up with a large convoy bound for Spain. The fleet hoped to make a speedy departure. With summer fading, the hurricane season was poised to begin.

But delayed by a calm, the Atocha,along with the other treasure ships, did not depart until Sunday, September 4. That day dawned fair and clear, and the wooden ships were soon lumbering toward the powerful Gulf Stream, which would sweep them back to Spain. But unknown to the crews, a hurricane had entered the Straits of Florida and was even then bearing down on them.

The blow fell on Mondaymorning. The sea was whipped into a frenzy, and howling winds drove the Atocha among sharp reefs and shoals. For two days, her crew battled the inevitable, even as the gale shredded sails and tossed the ship like driftwood. Finally, the Atocha impaled herself on a reef and went down. Crewmen on the Margarita watched the disaster and then shared in it when their own ship was hulled; it sank a few hours later. Three hundred eighty-seven passengers and crewmen went down with the two vessels, along with a king's ransom in treasure.

Amazingly, an attempt to salvagethe wrecks was made just four years later, in 1626, by a Cuban, Francisco Nu nez Melian. By dragging the ocean bottom with grappling anchors, he retrieved a few silver bars and almost half the Margarita's silver coins. The mother lode, however, eluded him. Nu nez Melian wrote a lengthy report on his work, which was filed and forgotten. The search ended, the location of the wreck was gradually forgotten, and that, for more than 300 years, was that.

The story began again with MelFisher. Born in 1922 in Hobart, Indiana, Mel originally had ambitions, such as they were, that had nothing to do with treasure-hunting. Like a lot of Gary lads, he took a crack at steel-mill work. A single day wielding a sledge hammer convinced him he should explore the academic life. He studied engineering for a year and a half at Purdue University, then enlisted in the army at the beginning of World War II. Besides participating in the Normandy invasion, he managed to complete his engineering education while still in uniform.

After the war came another stint inthe Gary mills. Fisher then moved to Chicago, Denver, Tampa, and finally to California, where he joined his parents at their chicken farm. The work wasn't much to his liking, so he took up scuba diving and eventually opened a diving store called Mel's Aqua Shop. A proficient underwater cameraman, he created a weekly local television show featuring his exploits. "I ran out of stories for the movies,' he says. "I had to think up a new script every week. Finally, I did one on treasure-hunting. I guess that's how it all started.'

At the same time, Fisher was tinkeringtogether a small, portable dredge for sifting gold from streams. He didn't find many nuggets, but the invention caught on with prospectors, and he made a tidy sum selling it. Fisher, then in his 40s, decided in 1963 to retire, move his wife and five children to Florida, and spend a year searching for sunken treasure. The family drove cross-country, and when Fisher arrived at the Atlantic coast, he parked his car at Vero Beach to stretch his legs and survey the ocean. The sight of the vast blue overwhelmed him. Jokingly, he asked a lifeguard if there were any Spanish galleons just lying around.

"He said, "Yeah, there's one rightover there,'' Fisher remembers. The spot wasn't too far beyond the surf line. The lifeguard said he dove the wreck each morning and collected lobsters from under its cannons and anchors. Fisher didn't get a chance to look at the wreck until years later, but the idea that his goal could be so close at hand lifted his spirits.

He purchased a boat and putteredaround the tepid waters off Florida for the balance of the year. But just as his adventure took on an air of Don Quixote-like futility, another machine he tinkered together saved the day. Called a mailbox because of its resemblance to said receptacle, it was a large metal device that, when fastened to the bottom of a boat, could channel the prop wash straight toward the ocean floor. The resulting turbulence could lift away tons of sediment and reveal long-hidden wrecks. Five days before his self-imposed deadline of one year was to end, Fisher parked his boat over a bay near Fort Pierce and fired up the mailbox. "After using it 15 minutes, the whole bottom of the ocean was just covered with gold doubloons,' he says.

The loot, which came from a fleetof treasure ships sunk in 1715, netted him several hundred thousand dollars. Fisher decided to use the windfall to go after bigger game. Just what that target should be was decided in 1965, when he read a copy of The Treasure Diver's Guide. The book rates shipwrecks with stars, the way travel guides rate hotels. The Atocha had four.

The book said the ship sankin the Middle Keys, which was dead wrong. Fisher originally gave himself another deadline --101 days--to find the Atocha, but that quickly went by the board as he became engrossed in the search. Using magnetometers, side-scan sonar, sub-bottom profilers, a pulse-detection sleigh, atomic-absorption photospectrometers, and the trusty mailbox, his boats scoured the ocean in a fruitless search for leads. "The first two years was just pure searching, back and forth,' Fisher says. "We didn't find anything from the wreck. We searched more than 100,000 square miles.'

Finally, two lead musket balls andan olive-jar neck were uncovered. Fisher was optimistic. "I told the guys, this is it,' he says. "Looking at the olive jar, I could tell for sure it was from around 1622 and Spanish.'

Still, the big break came noton the high seas, but thousands of miles away in the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain. There, Eugene Lyon, an acquaintance of Fisher's, was researching his doctoral dissertation among the library's moldering maritime files. In February 1970, he discovered Nu nez Melian's report on the salvage of the Santa Margarita. It said the ship was located in the Marquesas Keys, more than 100 miles from Fisher's search area.

Treasure Salvors, Fisher's growingcompany, quickly moved to Key West, where Mel and his family took up residence in a houseboat. Slowly, the sea yielded tantalizing clues. In 1971, an anchor and a stack of gold coins were found. In 1973, divers pulled up three silver bars whose markings matched those listed in the Atocha's manifest. In 1975, bronze cannons from the ship were located. In 1980, the Margarita was discovered. Along the way, Treasure Salvors found and bypassed more than 100 lesser wrecks; their wares, which helped finance the continuing search, were nowhere near the potential value of the Atocha.

As Fisher followed this Hansel andGretel trail on the ocean floor, disaster struck. In 1975, his son Dirk, his daughter-in-law, and a crewman were killed when their boat capsized in the middle of the night. "I almost quit when my son died,' he says. "But I figured he would have wanted me to find the darn thing.'

At the same time, Treasure Salvorswas fighting a running legal battle with both Florida and the United States, which at various times had tried to claim from 25 to 100 percent of everything the company found. The harassment did not end until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that neither government could take any of the loot.

With the discovery of the Margarita,it was assumed that the Atocha couldn't be far away. Still, the ancient vessel eluded her pursuers for another five years, until July 1985, when magnetometers on board a Treasure Salvors ship revealed the outline of a wreck on the ocean floor, 54 feet down and buried under several feet of silt. The mailbox was turned on, the debris was cleared, and there, rotted but still plainly visible, was the lower hull of the Atocha. The news was quickly radioed back to the company offices. A crowd gathered, and celebrations started, but Mel Fisher was nowhere to be found. Quickly, word was put out over the local radio station: "If anybody sees Mel Fisher, tell him he found the big pile.'

"I was down at the local dive store,buying some equipment,' Fisher remembers. "On the way back from the dive shop, about a three-block walk, I had a couple hundred people tell me.'

What he found, exactly, is still beingappraised. Treasure Salvors' resident archaeologist, when confronted with the task of surveying the wreck, called for help. Through some personal contacts inside the company, he found Resource Analysts, an Indianapolis contract archaeology firm. Its job was to wring out and document the historical significance of the wreck, even as divers lifted the treasures. "We will probably be here the rest of this year and probably next,' says the company's president, John Dorwin. "The quantity of material is overwhelming.'

From a historical point of view,finding a largely intact Spanish galleon was at least as important as locating the gold she carried. The construction techniques used to build such ships were a mystery before the Atocha find. "We've probably got as much structure as has ever been excavated from a Spanish galleon,' Dorwin says. "It's a major find.'

Resource Analysts first plotted theentire wreck on a giant grid. Each new discovery was photographed where it was found, charted on the grid, logged, and then hauled to the surface. So far, the massive catalog of finds includes swords, early muskets, ham and sea-turtle bones (pigs and turtles were carried alive on the ships for fresh meat), and a large assortment of contraband wealth, such as crude gold ingots not listed on the ship's manifest. Several pounds of emeralds had been smuggled aboard by a lowly sailor. The gems were discovered in Havana, however, and the unfortunate swabby was executed just days before his mates sailed to their deaths. The incident, along with the emeralds, was mentioned in the ship's manifest.

After centuries in the ocean, muchof the treasure is highly unstable when exposed to the air. One such item is a silver plate, washed in gold and engraved with an elaborate mythological scene. It must be kept in a vat of water, because exposure to the air corrodes the silver interior and causes the gold to flake off. Likewise, the timbers of the Atocha, if brought to the surface, would shrink and crumble. Once they have been examined by archaeologists, they will likely remain on the ocean floor just as they were found.

While Dorwin assesses the archaeologicalsignificance of the Atocha, his sister company, Analytic Resources, must list every piece of treasure so it can be fairly divided among investors. The job is every bit as hard as it sounds. "Basically, we have to inventory everything they bring up in much the same way a company inventories its stock,' says the company's president, Michael Carlson.

So far, "everything' is growing byleaps and bounds. In 1985 alone, 400,000 individual items were fished from the ocean. Each piece, from every silver coin in a treasure chest to every musket ball in a shooting kit, is digitally photographed via computer and listed with an evaluation of its quality, age, and other data. The object then receives an ID tag similar to a UPC symbol, which, when passed over a laser, can call up a computer listing of its vital statistics, along with the digital photo. Currently, 12 programmers are working 12-hour shifts in Key West to get the treasure into the computer system.

All this is vitally important for thedivision of the goods. Fisher sold hundreds of shares in his enterprise to investors. Some stockholders were tourists who plunked down $1,000 for limited partnerships while visiting his museum. Others have kicked in millions for a piece of the action. The wealth will be divided by a computer program, which will assign investors a certain number of points based on their contributions. The program will then search through the treasure listings for enough loot to satisfy each allotment.

Investors will be paid in treasure,not cash. "My feeling is that most of it will wind up in museums,' Carlson says. Perhaps, but not before it visits the auction block. The New York auction houses of Sotheby's and Christie's both have representatives on the scene, trying to put values on the personal possessions of the wealthy Spaniards who died with the Atocha. Some religious artifacts with extremely rare designs may be priceless.

Fisher has retained the lion's shareof his company stock, which means that when the division is over he will be a millionaire many, many times over. Treasure Salvors will be liquidated shortly after the division, and the Atocha will probably be mined out by the end of this year. Footloose once again, Fisher will be free to seek his next fortune. He fully intends to. "But I'm not at liberty to say where,' he says.

The Florida coast, still laden withsunken wealth in spite of the discovery of the Atocha, seems ready to oblige. Fisher proved his Midas touch a few years back, when he finally decided to visit the galleon wreck the Vero Beach lifeguard had pointed out to him. "We dug one hole and found a large gold cross,' he says. "Weighed 4 1/2 pounds, had 120 pearls on it. And that same day, we found a gold disk, 7 1/2 pounds, and a bunch of gold doubloons. It was a real exciting day.'

Photo: A necklace found on the Atocha turnedout to be the property of a Spanish princess, pictured wearing it in a 17th-century oil painting. The ornate piece was later reassembled by archaeological experts (below).

Photo: When Mel Fisher's ship finally came in after a 17-year wait, the diving crew had good cause to celebrate: a glittering cargo valued up to $1 billion. Fisher (at center) toasts his team and his treasure after collecting the first bountiful haul on July 20, 1985.

Photo: Even Treasure Salvors divers won't find all the Atocha's treasure, like these gold bars. "Your children and your children's children will be able to go to that wreck and find things,' Salvors vice-president Bleth McHaley says.

Photo: Before being retrieved from the ocean floor, each piece of sunken treasure from the wreck was photographed and plotted using a large metal grid.

Photo: Included in the booty are gold and rubyrosaries, a gold communion plate, daggers, swords, and a gold chain more than 12 feet long.

Photo: At least one Treasure Salvors boat rides over the wreckat all times to keep away the curious.

Photo: Treasure hauled from the ocean bottom is logged on the spot.

A particularly bizarre itemin the inventory is an emerald-encrusted "poison cup.' Legend claims the cup's interior stone can negate the power of such poisons as hemlock.

Photo: Eleven bronze cannons--a rare find--were lifted from the Atocha and the Margarita. The best of the lot was given to Queen Sophia of Spain in 1976.

Photo: Back home again in Indiana, the formerGary resident Mel Fisher visits with his business agent, Mark Roesler, president of Curtis Licensing Company.

Photo: A fictionalized film based on Fisher's treasure quest airs this fall on CBS. His wife, Deo, shown with their daughter Taffi, will be played by Loretta Swit.

Photo: The Indianapolis Children's Museum hosted the only exhibit of the Atocha's riches. Fisher was on hand to watch thousands of visitors sample life on a Spanish galleon. The museum displayed 70 items valued at $15 million.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
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Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:sunken treasure ship
Author:Stall, Sam
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1986
Previous Article:Carol Burnett: no kidding.
Next Article:Looking out for no. 2.

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