Back to the Atocha

MARQUESAS KEYS — In 1985 aboard the Dauntless salvage boat, Jimmy Buffett sang atop a stack of silver bars while treasure hunter Mel Fisher and his crew swilled champagne to celebrate their jaw-dropping discovery.

After 16 years that included a U.S. Supreme Court victory and the death of his son, Fisher’s dream had come true. In waters 55 feet below them, divers Andy Matroci and Greg Wareham had found a virtual reef made of chests full of silver coins, silver plates, silver bars, copper ingots, stone ballast and artifacts. It was the $450 million mother lode of the 1622 shipwreck, Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

July 20 marked the 25th anniversary of a dis- covery compared to the opening of King Tut’s tomb, and Key West has been commemorating the occasion at its annual Mel Fisher Days celebration, concluding Sunday.But out at sea, the crews of the J.B. Magruder and Dare salvage boats continue to search along the 10-mile trail of the Atocha wreck for the rest of the Spanish galleon’s buried booty — and a chance to complete the odyssey of the master salvage man, who died in 1998.

“We’re looking for the stern castle, where there’s another 400 silver bars and over 130,000 silver coins,” said Sean Fisher, Mel’s grandson, who was 7 when the treasure was found.

Fisher, who inherited some of his grandfather’s charisma and enthusiasm, added: “The stern castle is also where the church kept its gold and its taxes, and we don’t know how much that was because the church was more powerful than the state. The church didn’t have to say what they were bringing on the ship.”

Also left off the manifest and missing: about 60 pounds of emeralds from the Muzo mines of Colombia. Fisher said the gems, believed to have been smuggled on board in a 70-pound keg, are among the unknown amount of contraband sneaked aboard the Atocha to avoid the Spanish king’s 20 percent tax.

The Atocha was the flagship of a 28-ship fleet traveling from Havana to Spain in early September 1622. Less than 48 hours into the six- to eight-week journey, a hurricane blew the Atocha and its sister ship, the Santa Margarita, into the reefs.

The heavy treasure of the Atocha remained where it sank, but subsequent storms scattered parts of the Atocha along a 10-mile, 300-yard wide trail that split into two branches at about the halfway point.

The J.B. Magruder was anchored at a site nicknamed Emerald City, where nearly seven pounds of the precious gems have been found. It is close to where the mother lode was found, in the Marquesas Keys, about 35 miles southeast of Key West.

The Dare was a few miles away, in the middle of the trail at a site dubbed the Bank of Spain, where thousands of silver coins have been discovered.

The two sites have been worked over. Still, the crews revisit them three weeks a year, when many of the 150 current investors are in town, because there’s still a good chance of finding emeralds and silver coins, Fisher said. The investors help foot the treasure hunting operating costs of about $3 million a year.

Most of the time, however, the crews are searching for the stern castle — the back of the Atocha, where the wealthy noblemen, the clergy and the captain kept their valuables.

The crews include another Fisher grandson, Josh Fisher-Abt, 28. Jose “Papo” Garcia, who used to treasure-hunt in his native Cuba, captains the Dare, and Matroci, one of the two divers who found the treasure , helms the J.B. Magruder.

The payoff

Sean Fisher puts the value of the Atocha’s unfound treasure at a whopping “half billion,” or about the value of the original find — the payoff in a quest that was fraught with troubles.

Mel Fisher’s son Dirk, his daughter-in-law Angel and diver Rick Gage died when a salvage boat capsized — exactly 10 years before the Atocha discovery.

Fisher found himself in an eight-year legal battle over rights to the ship’s treasure and was accused of scamming people out of money. He persevered.

“Every day my grandfather said: ‘Today’s the day,’” Sean Fisher said. “He believed it and had a way of making you believe it, too.”

Matroci and Wareham made their big find on the third dive of the day. Based on the previous day’s work, they thought they were close to the “main pile.”

Matroci had charted all the holes and what was found in each. He had a hunch and told Wareham that instead of going straight to the hole, they should each swim a southeast route.

“I felt a tap on my shoulder, and turned. Greg’s eyes were coming out of his mask,” Matroci recalled.

Wareham led Matroci to a pile about 75 feet long, 20 feet wide and three feet high. They shook hands, then swam around the mother lode twice, savoring the moment.

“I knew once we surfaced, it was never going to be quiet down there again,” Matroci said.

For Mel Fisher’s modern-day treasure hunters, technology advancements, especially GPS, have made surveying easier.

Tedious work

It took about 45 minutes for the Dare crew to use the mailbox to dig a hole about 12 feet deep and 30 feet in diameter at the Bank of Spain dive site.

Once the hole was opened, two divers jumped in. One checked the bottom for gold and other artifacts. The other used a metal detector to go around the berm of the hole, where lighter items like silver coins and iron get pushed to the side.

Inside were thousands of perfectly shaped shells and sand dollars the size of Frisbees, but no sunken treasure.

Less than 15 minutes later, the divers rose to the surface and another hole was dug about 20 feet away, making sure the two overlapped.

In Mel Fisher’s day, the work was tedious, and it remains so. Treasure hunters can often go months or years without finding anything of real value.

“One thing I learned from Mel,” Fisher said:

“If you don’t believe the next hole you dig is going to be the hole with all the treasure, you have no business being out here.”