ABOARD THE CARNIVAL VICTORY – In 1969, Mel Fisher began searching for the Atocha, a Spanish treasure galleon that sank off the coast of the Florida Keys in 1622.
Every morning, Fisher would exhort, “Today’s the day.”
And 33 years ago, it was.
After a 16-year adventure that included financial hardship, tragic loss, and triumph, Fisher and his treasure hunters found the Atocha on July 20, 1985. Estimated at half a billion dollars, the shipwreck made Mel Fisher the richest treasure hunter in the world.
Today, visitors can follow that adventure at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West and see some of the amazing artifacts recovered from the Atocha.
The ship was loaded with a cargo that is, today, almost beyond belief. The museum also features the stories of other shipwrecks, including the Henrietta Marie, an English merchant slave ship that sank 35 miles west of Key West in 1700.
Shortly before the sinking, the Henrietta Marie had sold a shipment of 190 captive Africans in Jamaica. Found by Mel Fisher’s divers in 1972, the Henrietta Marie was not a treasure ship but was an important historic discovery.
“From the Henrietta Marie, we have the most complete collection of artifacts from a slave ship,” said Corey Malcolm, archaeologist for the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. “The ship carried iron bars as trade goods for human beings … It’s a chilling look at the slave trade.”
Museum artifacts on display include a gold chain that weighs more than seven pounds, jewelry, cannon, gold bars, silver coins, cannon balls, contraband emeralds, military armaments, tools, ceramic vessels, even seeds, and insects.
One of the unusual finds is a golden chalice known as a “Poison Cup.” A special “cage” inside the cup would hold a gallstone from a llama or goat. Called “Bezoar Stones,” the gallstone was believed to ward off poison.
“That’s so the person who drank from the cup wouldn’t be poisoned by an enemy,” Malcolm said. “Strangely, recent forensic research says that the Bezoar Stone which is made up of hair and calcium actually contains a protein that bonds with arsenate. That’s the toxic element in arsenic so that old theory was right.”
Mel Fisher died of cancer in 1998 at age 76. A former chicken farmer from Indiana who was inspired by reading “Treasure Island” as a child, Fisher was a treasure hunter until the day he died, his son Kim Fisher said in a video at the museum.
“And he died happy,” his son said.
Photos by Jackie Sheckler Finch