The wreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha is regarded one of the most famous marine treasure sites in the world. This heavily armed galleon was built in 1620 in Havana and was the rear guard of the Spanish treasure fleet headed from the Americas to Spain when it sank in a hurricane in early September 1622 off the Florida Keys. The manifest stated a declared cargo that included 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. In addition to this incredible treasure were many unregistered jewelry pieces and personal goods smuggled to avoid taxation. Long gold chains were listed as personal jewelry and therefore untaxable. Only five of the 265 people on board survived the hurricane by clinging to the mizzenmast and the 55 foot depth proved too deep for easy salvage. One month later, a second hurricane blew through the area, scattering the remains of the Atocha and its sister ships.
It wasn’t until 1985 that the Atocha was rediscovered after a 16 years search by Mel Fisher and his salvage group. Since that time, a fortune in gold, silver bars, coins, and emeralds have been recovered in a process of discovery that continues today. Such items included a solid gold belt and necklace set with gems, a large emerald-inlaid gold crucifix on a gold chain, a gold chalice designed to prevent its user from being poisoned, an intricately engraved gold plate, a gold chain that weighs more than seven pounds, a cache of smuggled emeralds including an impressive 78 carat uncut hexagonal crystal traced to the famous Muzo mine in Colombia, religious and secular jewelry, and silverware. In addition, countless articles that provide insight into seventeenth-century life have been found: rare navigational instruments, military armaments, native American objects, tools of various trades, ceramic vessels, and galley utensils. One of the most unique items recovered was a decorative jewelry belt identical to the one worn by the princess of Spain. Each jewelry piece was of finely filigreed gold inset with a different precious stone. Many of these artifacts are on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West.
I had the great opportunity to accompany the Mel Fisher Enterprises salvage vessel Dauntless on a weekend of treasure salvage. Invited and accompanied by Pat Clyne, highly skilled diver and official photographer when the Atocha was discovered, we performed several dives along the treasure trail. Dives were about one hour at a 30 foot depth so one could dive all day long without consequence. The salvage vessel would blast the ocean floor with a water jet and then we searched for items alternately using metal detectors. We were fortunate to find about 10 Spanish pieces of eight, several pottery shards, and ballast stones. We did not find any gold or emeralds but others diving before and after us certainly have. In fact, the dive crew found a piece of the jewelry belt the day we arrived on site. It was spectacular and a special discovery since this was the 16th piece out of 31 that had been recovered. Nothing gets the adrenaline going like the possibility of finding gold and emeralds.