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"Once you have seen the ocean bottom paved with gold coins,
You’ll never forget it!"
Mel Fisher, 1922-1998
One of the earliest pioneers in the dive industry … a dreamer and visionary … discoverer of the greatest treasure since the opening of King Tut's tomb … the man who shared with the world the bounty of Spain’s explorations of the New World. Mel Fisher was all these and more.
The Early Years
Born in 1922 in Hobart, Indiana, Mel read Treasure Island as a boy and thinks that may have been what gave him the treasure bug. An inventor even at an early age, he remembers making his first dive helmet out of a bucket, some hose line, and a bicycle pump.
Mel studied engineering at Alabama University before entering the army during the Second World War. During the war, he traveled through France and Germany repairing everything we’d bombed out. While he was honing his mechanical and innovative skills, a new sport was born under the guise of warfare. The development of Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) made work and play in the ocean's depths practical for the first time.
Mel Fisher, Dive Pioneer
By 1950, Mel had moved to California, where he started a chicken ranch but soon opened the states first dive shop in one of the farm's sheds.
It was small, but it was the only place for divers to get equipment. Mel offered free dive lessons to anyone who bought equipment.
Determined to develop the sport, he modified existing dive and snorkel gear to make it easier to use. Where necessary, he invented his own.
Mel supported his personal dive activities by making some of the first underwater movies, showing people the glories of the underwater world and encouraging them to learn to dive.
In 1953, Mel decided to sell the ranch and concentrate on the dive business. He noticed that the family that he was negotiating with to buy the property had a beautiful daughter, Dolores, known as Deo. Mel offered to teach her to dive and they quickly progressed from dive buddies to sweethearts to husband and wife. They honeymooned in the Florida Keys, combining business with pleasure as Mel made one of his best-known movies, The Other End of the Line.
With the ranch sold, the couple moved to Redondo Beach and opened Mel's Aqua Shop. They worked tirelessly, making some of the first wet suits and building their own spear guns. Mel's father, Earl, was in charge of making the lead weights, filling air tanks, and repairing equipment while his mother, Grace, helped to run the shop. Both parents learned to dive.
The Onset of Treasure Fever
Mel's first search for gold was not in the ocean, but in rivers. Since 1849, California had been the gold rush state and gold panning was a popular hobby. Mel realized that SCUBA equipment could provide much better access to riverbeds and offered what he thought would be a small lecture on the subject. Instead, his audience was huge and a new hobby was born. As its popularity grew, sales went up in the dive store and the Fishers enjoyed themselves teaching and panning for gold.
Never content to rest on his laurels, Mel began diving on shipwrecks and soon discovered the thrill of historic salvage. He and Deo dove throughout the Caribbean and South America, making movies and simply exploring.
Deo Fisher, Dive Buddy
As Mel's dive buddy and business partner, Deo was one of the first women to learn to dive and she embraced it as a career. When she and Mel bought the land for their shop, they had to raise the money to build it. She and Mel dove for lobster to help pay for the construction one lobster might be worth as many as seven concrete blocks!
When Mel and Deo pondered their marketing plans, they realized that there was a large section of the population that they were not reaching: women. Deo taught people to dive, but few women came to learn. "We wanted to show it was not just a macho sport," says Deo. "Women could do it just as well as men. They just needed some publicity!"
Deo offered to challenge the current women's record for staying underwater: 50 hours. On August 2, 1959, when she was just 23 years old, she descended into an empty porpoise tank at the Hermosa Beach
Aquarium amidst a flurry of news coverage. For 55 hours, 37 minutes, and 11 seconds, Deo remained underwater, drinking juice and soup and eating bananas. To pass the time, she played chess with Mel, watched a TV he had set up outside the tank, and read soggy books and magazines. Mel and their three children Dirk, 5; Kim, 3; and Kane, 9 months spent hours watching her. Kane took his first steps while she was underwater.
When the Fishers got bored with diving locally they began to promote dive expeditions first for a weekend, then a week, then a month. Deo helped Mel lead these expeditions all around the world. On one such adventure she became the first woman to dive in a cenote (sacred well) in Yucatan. Deo shared Mel's every danger and on several occasions their boats sank while they were exploring. Once, in California, they had to swim home and climb up the cliffs before getting back to their house 12 hours late. Another time when their
boat sank, they had to bail for their lives. They were rescued at the last moment by a passing freighter.
As a young woman Deo appeared in a number of TV programs about diving and in many of Mel's films. She also did some freelance work, including dressing as a mermaid for an ad campaign. But she always undertook these activities within the context of promoting the family business, first just diving, then searching for shipwreck treasures.
"The thing you have to realize about my mother", says Taffy Fisher, "Is that, for everything, she was always there. She didn't cook, she didn't sew, and she had no time for that. She was by Dad's side every moment."
Early finds on the 1715 Fleet
Although running Mel's Aqua Shop was fun; the Fishers became much more interested in diving particularly on sites of great natural or historic interest. On the way back from one of their dive expeditions in 1964, the Fishers passed through Sebastian, Florida, to meet Kip Wagner, a local treasure hunter.
In the early 1960s, Wagner had found silver coins washed up on the beach and this started him on a quest for treasure. Founding a company called Real Eight; Wagner took out state leases for promising stretches of the seabed and started searching for the remains of the treasure fleet of 1715, which had sunk along the coast between Sebastian and Fort Pierce.
Mel and Deo made an immediate decision that this was the way to follow their dream they would move to Florida and hunt for treasure full time! Mel brought an experienced team of divers and engineers with him from California, all of whom were fascinated by searching for shipwrecks. Calling themselves Universal Salvors (later renamed Treasure Salvors,) the group consisted of Mel and Deo, Rupert Gates, Demosthenes "Mo" Molinar, Dick Williams, Walt Holzworth, Arnold McLean, and Fay Field. Universal Salvors worked with Kip Wagner's team on various sites and on joint public relations.
While working a wreck called the "Colored Beach Site," Mel and Universal Salvers uncovered a carpet of gold coins on the seabed thousands of gold coins. This was the first of several breathtaking discoveries by the group. The finds prompted a "gold rush" of other treasure hunters to the site, forcing the State of Florida to write legislation governing the discovery and division of treasure in its waters. Serious salvors, such as Mel and Kip Wagner, took out contracts with the state to conduct treasure salvage. Part of the deal was that the State would get 25% of whatever they found. This law remains in effect today.
Mel and Deo dove on the 1715 fleet every day. It was time consuming to get a boat out there through the roundabout channels, so they left the boat in place and swam out to it instead. Because it was so close, they could spend a regular workday on the wreck and come home every night. Taffi Fisher remembers growing up during this period. "Mom and Dad would swim out to the boat but there were three rock ledges between the beach and the site. At low tide the lemon sharks came out to eat the little fish trapped by the bars, but they would swim right through them. Mom joked that she wasn't afraid because Dad told her they were Man-eaters!"
Treasure Salvors consisted Mel and Deo, together with six partners who all brought different expertise and interest to the project. Fay Field, an engineer who had developed his own shipwreck-locating magnetometer some years before, became the principal inventor in the group, working with Mel to perfect the "mailboxes," side-scan sonar, sub-bottom profilers, and other equipment. Walt Holzworth was a coin collector who did not know how to dive when he joined the Fishers. He was 55 years old at the time and had to take Mel's class several times. Mo Molinar was a boat mechanic and captain whom the Fishers had met in Panama and who had gone to work for them in California. Dick Williams was an all-around guy as well as an engineer. Welder Arnold McLean helped develop new detectors, while Deo reports that Rupe Gates "was always great at keeping it all together and calming people down when things got frustrating."
The Florida Keys and the 1733 Wrecks
By 1968, the Fishers were looking for alternatives to the 1715 fleet. They had recovered a great deal from those ships, but the State of Florida and the press were critical of what Mel was doing plus it was too cold and rough to work in the winter. Mel decided to move to the Florida Keys, the site of many more shipwrecks, to look for the even more lucrative lost galleons of the 1622 treasure fleet that had reportedly sunk in Keys waters.
The Fishers moved first to Islamorada to work on the 1733 fleet a search which had been started by another famous treasure hunter, Art McKee. Several other treasure hunters were also in residence including Bob Weller, Bobby Klein, Craig Hamilton, Marty Meylach, and Tom Gurr but there was room for everyone and they all got along. When Tom Gurr's finds were confiscated by the State, Mel threw a party to cheer him up.
It was at this party that someone took out a copy of Potter's The Treasure Diver's Guide, in which the Nuestra Señora de Atocha was described as one of the richest shipwrecks ever lost. Not only had it been lost in the Florida Keys, but the site was described by contemporary Spanish authors as being at the head of the keys in the keys of Matecumbe. Since Islamorada was located on Upper Matecumbe, it seemed that Mel was already in place to go after this fabled hoard.
The search was on. It was not possible to get an exact location from the Spanish records, but they did mention deep water. Mel found several of the 1733 wrecks and a variety of artifacts ranging from pilar dollars to flintlock pistols and silver candelabras but not the Atocha.
Mel and Deo joined the local Methodist church and there they met Eugene Lyon, who revealed that he knew not only Spanish, but how to read the inscrutable scrawl in which much of the material in the Spanish archives was written. Also, Gene was on his way to Seville to complete some research for his doctoral dissertation. Mel offered Gene $10,000 and a share of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha treasure if he could find out something useful about it.
In the archives, Gene discovered that the "Matecumbes" at that time referred to the entire Florida Keys and that there was an account of Spanish salvage attempts on the 1622 fleet near the Cayos del Marques, the modern-day Marquesas, forty miles west of Key West.
Key West and the Search for the Atocha
In order to work near the Marquesas, the Fishers moved to Key West. By that time, they had a replica Spanish galleon that they used as a floating museum in which to display their treasures. It served as a tourist attraction and Mel’s office, while the family, which by now included three sons and daughter Taffi lived in a houseboat on Key West's "Houseboat Row." Deo spent more time in the office so that she could come home from work every night; the Marquesas were far enough away that search boats stayed out for a week or more at a time.
By 1971, Mel had been searching all round the Marquesas and had found nothing. Suddenly the trail picked up. Bob Holloway, one of Mel's captains, found a huge Spanish anchor and some olive jar fragments a good indication that a ship was nearby. Mel thought his troubles were over. As he continued to search, Don Kincaid, a young underwater photographer who had just joined the Treasure Salvors crew, discovered an 8-1/2 foot gold chain. Surely this was IT?
It was not until two years later that Mel's son Kane found a silver bar inscribed with numbers that matched the Spanish manifest of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. This was the proof Mel had been looking for. Over the next two years there were more finds large and small, valuable and ordinary.
Mel added an archaeologist to his team, Duncan Mathewson In a significant step that set him apart from many other treasure hunters. He realized that some of the controversy surrounding his efforts would lessen if he had an archaeologist in command of the excavation effort. He also realized that archaeologists knew more about historic sites than he did, and that Duncan could help him find the Atocha. He had an archaeologist on his crew consistently from that day forward.
Treasure and Tragedy
On July 13, 1975, Mel's oldest son Dirk found 5 bronze cannons from the Atocha. Everyone thought the "Motherlode" was close, but a week later tragedy struck. The salvage boat Northwind capsized during the night and Dirk, his wife Angel, and diver Rick Gage were lost. In all, the hunt for the Atocha claimed four young lives but the search continued as Dirk would have wanted
Over the next ten years, more exciting discoveries were made, including thousands of gold coins, magnificent jewelry, and in 1980 a large stern section of another of the 1622 galleons, the Santa Margarita. The main cargo for the Atocha, however the Motherlode still eluded Mel and his team. They kept searching.
The Fisher Factor
Was it treasure hunting, a history quiz, or show biz? There is a bit of everything in the Fisher Factor. A born leader and adventurer, Mel began with his own band, then took to guiding new divers on spectacular explorations, then led crews of working divers and boat captains on a search for sunken treasure. It took more than knowing what to do, it took Mel's enormous charisma, personal charm, and exuberance. He spun his yarns of Spanish galleons and touted his finds for all they were worth. There was never enough money to do everything he wanted to do, so it was important to keep in the public eye.
Treasure hunting is a costly business, and there are hundreds more days on which absolutely nothing is found than there are of days finding gold and silver. Meanwhile, expenses even in the 1970s often ran as high as $1,000 a day.
Mel never lost hope and was always been surrounded by a great team of people. Many of them worked for next to nothing in the hope of big rewards some day. Others, also ready for big rewards, invested in his operations. During the 1970s, Mel’s crews were finding bits and pieces from the 1622 fleet all along some spectacular, others ordinary. While Mel kept the business one step ahead of his creditors, he encouraged his crews every day with his famous catch phrase "Today's the Day." Always optimistic, Mel seemed able to pull something out of his hat when things got bad. And people believed in him.
"I remember once we camped on Ballast Key and painted stones like Easter eggs for a party with the investors," recalls Taffi Fisher. A party was often the solution to hard times lobsters were free and divers caught them, providing a feast. Mel rallied his troops with laughter and made everyone dance the hokey-pokey.
Stockholders were not left out, for they were just as important as the divers. On one famous occasion Mel invited 200 investors to a cookout. He transported them all over to Boca Grande Key where he had hidden a bunch of artifact tags. He gave each one a metal detector and let them loose, those who found a tag received a piece of eight. As night fell, they all sat around a big bonfire while Mel brought them up to date on the search.
The movie based on Mel’s life, Dreams of Gold, with Cliff Robertson and Loretta Switt, captures some of the spirit of the Fishers' lives. "Except the part where they show me cooking," says Deo Fisher. "Everyone who knows me knows I don't cook!"
Treasure hunting, now known as "historic salvage," has never been illegal in Florida but it is controversial. Many archaeologists believe that excavation, with or without a professional archaeologist to oversee it, should not be done by a for-profit company. The ethics underlying this idea have been a source of internal change not only for Mel’s operation but for the State of Florida itself and both have attempted to solve the problem in their own ways.
In the 1970s, the state charged treasure salvors for a search contract and a salvage permit on each site, and made them put up a bond. The state also required a state agent on every boat, but they would only assign one per salvage contract and that agent could not work more than 40 hours a week. In the search for the Atocha, Mel wound up paying for six agents buying their equipment, teaching them to dive, and feeding them. It was the only way to get all the boats and hours of work covered!
Meanwhile, the State of Florida, and later the federal government, were ambivalent about Mel’s success: he was the most successful treasure hunter they had ever seen. They changed the rules for contracts, expanded the definition of "state waters" and, in 1975, the State of Florida began to argue that it owned the Atocha site. The state confiscated many of the artifacts and Mel called in his attorney, David Paul Horan, to appeal. Seven years later, after 141 hearings, Horan argued Mel’s case before the U.S. Supreme Court and finally won. Mel was awarded all the artifacts from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, the Santa Margarita, and the Henrietta Marie due to the fact that Horan was able to prove that these ships were outside Florida waters.
These days, the placing of state agents on boats has been abandoned and, in place of the bond, the contract is for ownership of the historical materials with a provision under which Mel’s operations donate 20% of all the artifacts found to the state. The state gets to pick its artifacts, but Mel’s team often suggests that certain artifacts should go to the state because they are too important to remain in private hands. In the uneasy truce that has been reached, Mel’s operations have actually set the standard by which other treasure hunters are measured including tracking all finds, keeping archaeological records, completing reports on shipwreck sites, and restraining enthusiastic newcomers who do not understand the importance of the state's regulations.
The Motherlode at Last
Today’s the day? It was not so much the day as it was the year. On Memorial Day weekend in 1985, one of Mel’s crews found a cache of 13 gold bars, 4 pieces of gold jewelry set with emeralds, a gold chain, and numerous coins. Was this part of the Atocha's horde or was it another find from the Margarita?
On July 20, a magnetometer contact indicated a large target on the seabed. Two divers, Andy Matroci and Greg Wareham, went down to investigate. Facing them was a reef of what looked like stones. The divers went back up for a metal detector and went down again. The metal detector went wild: it was a reef of silver bars!
Andy reached the surface first and yelled to the salvage boat, "It's the Motherlode! We're sitting on silver bars!" Kane Fisher radioed back to Key West, "Put away the charts. We've found the main pile."
The long search was over. As the news spread all over Key West, people began looking for Mel who was out buying a new pair of dive fins. The local radio station was announcing, "If anyone has seen Mel Fisher, tell him he found the big pile." Mel first heard about the discovery from well-wishers who congratulated him on the street. Kane subsequently told him, "Silver bars are stacked like cordwood. Coins everywhere."
They had found 1,041 silver bars and boxes of coins 3,000 to a box.
The whole world descended on the site including Jimmy Buffet, who sat on a pile of silver bars and played for the crew. The world media had the scoop that many had thought would never come.
Two weeks later, as they continued to search the site, Mel’s crew found 65 pounds of gold in the form of 77 bars, 7 disks, and 7 chains. They continued on and found numerous gold and silver artifacts as well as almost 3,000 Colombian emeralds.
Raising the silver was only part of the task involving the Motherlode. Duncan and his archaeological team began the major task of recording the evidence on the seabed information that would help fill in the missing gaps in the story of the loss of the Atocha. That process is still going on today.
"People need symbols, and the Atocha is a kind of symbol a symbol for great adventure, great striving, tremendous persistence, a dream which was realized," says historian Dr. Eugene Lyon. "It's also a tremendous cultural accomplishment by those people who went out and persisted and found the shipwreck and recovered it."
Two years after the discovery of the Motherlode, careful recovery and preservation efforts had netted an impressive haul in terms of both artifacts and treasure. Estimates of the wreck’s value ranged from $200 million to $400 million. Among the discoveries were 127,000 silver coins; more than 900 silver bars averaging nearly 70 pounds apiece; more than 700 high-quality emeralds and roughly 2,500 lighter stones; over 250 pounds of gold bars, discs, bits, and lengths of heavy gold chain; and hundreds of items of jewelry, silverware, crucifixes, and gold coins.
Far more important to Mel’s archaeological team were the thousands of artifacts of shipboard life discovered including rare 17th-century navigational instruments. Probably the most significant archaeological find was a 30-foot by 20-foot section of the Atocha's lower hull structure. Approximately 50 of the major hull timbers were preserved and studied in the protected waters behind Florida Keys Community College.
As the careful excavation continued, the archaeological team was sometimes surprised by nearly unbelievable experiences on the site. For example, archaeological assistant Cris Gober recalls being hard at work underwater when he looked up and saw hundreds of sparkling green emeralds floating down through the water toward him. The emeralds, concealed under sand, had been sucked up in an airlift or underwater "vacuum cleaner" used to clear the sand and silt from the site. The airlift released the jewels just under the surface of the water and Cris, like everyone else caught in the emerald rain shower, delightedly picked up as many of the "raindrops" as he could.
By 1982, Mel Fisher realized that the discoveries he had made were too important not to be shared with the world. Although he was already operating a small museum, he wanted a means of ensuring that the artifacts he had found would be protected and exhibited and their stories told long after he himself was gone. That year, he founded the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society.
Today, thanks to Mel’s forethought, the Society is an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to exhibition, education, archaeology, preservation, and research concerning Spanish and Colonial maritime activity in the New World. Thanks in great part to his donations of artifacts and treasures, the Society's Key West museum contains the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime antiquities in this hemisphere and it has become a major center for the study of early European maritime history in the New World.
In accordance with his desire to share his momentous discoveries with the world, Mel Fisher donated the bulk of the Society's collections at its founding, and other material after subsequent shipwreck excavations. The largest part of the collection is made up of more than 85,000 artifacts from the Spanish galleons Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita.
Among the pieces from these ships are two of Mel’s most spectacular early finds, the gold plate and the gold cup used to detect poisoned wine — the heavy golden priest's chain that he loved to drape around his neck ... the only known surviving example of a "cinta" necklace or belt ... a 17th-century navigator's astrolabe — and scores of contraband emeralds whose discovery was as big a surprise to Mel as it was to everyone else.
Yet just as important as the Spanish galleons he found is the English merchant slaver Henrietta Marie. One of the few slave shipwrecks ever discovered in this hemisphere, it was first encountered during the long, arduous search for the Atocha. Calling it "The English Wreck," Mel and his divers treated it with the respect it deserved. Today, the Henrietta Marie is believed to be the world’s largest source of tangible objects from the early years of the maritime slave trade. Careful archaeology brought to light artifacts including the ship’s bell, the largest collection of shackles ever recovered from one site, Venetian glass trade beads, and extremely rare pieces of William III pewter which, after meticulous conservation, have joined the galleons' gold in the Society's museum.
In the spirit of Mel Fisher, Society archaeologists continue to search faraway waters for shipwrecks no one else has the vision or the experience to find. They are currently excavating a 16th-century Spanish discovery vessel known only as the St. John's Wreck. This undisturbed wrecksite has already yielded crossbows, bombard barrels and breeches, rail guns, a conquistador’s helmet, ship’s fittings, and a pair of bronze navigational dividers. After completing conservation in the Society's labs, many of these extraordinary artifacts will become part of the permanent collection.
"The Society represents the clear intent to record for posterity what Mel Fisher has found," says Dr. Gene Lyon. "Long past the time that any of the participants are alive, the cultural meaning of the shipwrecks will be portrayed in the various museum exhibits and publications, telling people about life under sail."
Approximately 200,000 people visit the Society's museum annually to marvel at the treasures and artifacts recovered by Mel Fisher and his crews and the triumph of the human spirit that their recovery represents.
Dixie Spehar Proclaims July 20th
Mel Fisher Day in Monroe County.
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