On September 6, 1622, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a 112 foot Spanish galleon, sank 35 miles west of Key West, Florida, near the Dry Tortugas islands during a hurricane. The ship was more heavily armed than the other 27 ships and was thus carrying the most important people and the most cargo of the ships in its convoy. The Atocha was the rear ship and when the hurricane hit was one of eight ships to sink. It sank very quickly in 55 feet of water, and 260 of the 265 people aboard perished. The survivors were found the next day clinging to the mizzenmast, 3 crew and 2 slaves were rescued. Plans to salvage the ship were hampered by the depth as divers of that time had to hold their breath and had no masks to help them see underwater. A few weeks later another hurricane spread the wreckage across the ocean floor and salvage attempts focused on other, more accessible ships. The Atocha was then lost in time.
The 17th Century was a time for trading and traveling and Spain was a superpower amongst seagoing countries. Every year two fleets (flota) of ships would leave Spain for the Caribbean to trade goods for precious metals to create currency and other items to spur its economy. The Tierra Firme fleet, with the Atocha, left Cadiz, Spain on March 23, 1622 and rode the currents south along Africa and arrived in Portobello, Panama two months later. The ships then visited Cartegena, Columbia on July 22 and then arrived in La Habana, Cuba in August. The ship then sat until September 4th before leaving on its fateful journey. The reason for the long times in port were due to constantly receiving cargo, some of which was late for arrival, the loading and the recording of the cargo, as well as poor sailing conditions. The Commander of the fleet had also heard rumors of Dutch Raiders in the area, which persuaded him to add an extra ship to his fleet that had separated from the main flota. It was also decided that all 28 ships would sail back to Spain together which also added to their time and pushed them well into the dangerous hurricane season.
The ship’s records note 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. The gold and silver came from Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Columbia and the copper from Havana. Other ships carried agricultural products back to Spain and most ships hid contraband jewels and other expensive items to hide them from taxation.
The goal for the fleet to sail back to Spain was to follow the coast of America and turn toward Portugal when at the correct latitude. The Commander was impatient and ordered the fleet to depart immediately on September 4th as hurricane season was in full force and certainly the Dutch Raiders were on his mind. The fleet left on a clear and sunny afternoon and headed north toward what eventually would be Miami.
On September 5th, the fleet was met with the hurricane which blew heavy winds from the northeast. The only way for a ship of that time to make it through a hurricane was to ride with the winds and hope it did not run aground. The ships turned and followed the Florida Keys westward as the winds pushed them along. The next day the winds began to blow from the south and the fleet was pushed toward the reef line. It was then that 8 of the ships were caught in the reef and torn to shreds. The Santa Margarita collided with the reef and the high waves carried the ship over into shallower waters as the ship sank. The Atocha attempted to drop anchor, but the ship was flung onto the reef tearing a hole in the bow and the ship quickly sank.
Diving pioneer and treasure hunter Mel Fisher began a search for the Atocha in 1969. In 1973, 3 silver bars were found and matched those on the manifest. The manifest and other paperwork related to the ship’s final resting area had been minor roadblocks as the paper they were printed on was deteriorated, written with quill, and parts were hard to decipher. In 1975, Mel’s son Dirk discovered 5 bronze cannons that were also part of the Atocha. Days later, Dirk, his wife Angel, and a fellow diver were killed when their boat capsized. Despite these latest finds Mel found himself very deep in debt and now had lost a son to the search for the Atocha. Most men in his position would quit and work their way out of the mounting debt, but Mel pushed on with his mantra, “Today’s the day”.
July 20, 1985, 16 years after beginning the pursuit, Kane Fisher radioed his father from his ship that the Atocha had been found. This, however, isn’t the end of the story. The United States Government seized much of what Mel had found and claimed the wreck (and everything else aboard) the property of the state. After an 8 year legal battle that mounted more financial trouble he was rewarded the right to the wreck along with many provisions that are now law with finding treasure in the ocean. The wreck of the Atocha easily paid Mel’s debts and his legacy now continues on after his passing in 1998. The Mel Fisher names lives on and the search for more treasure continues with the Atocha to this day. In June of 2011 an emerald ring that is valued at around $500,000 was discovered. Divers are able to pay a fee to dive with the team and are rewarded with similar artifacts they discover up to the value in which they paid for the trip during their two day dive time.
What does this story have to do with the paranormal? Not too much, other than the fact that he pioneered the use of magnetometers underwater in looking for precious metals. Yes, 260 people died, but there is no exact spot that we know where the ship actually sank since time has scattered the ship’s remains along a few mile long trail.
The fact is Mel Fisher continued at great odds to search for something that others told him he was foolish to look for. His display of human spirit is unmatched in science in this day and age and his daily mantra not only kept creditors at bay and workers working on limited pay, but also gave him the confidence to keep on going even after the death of his oldest son and his ever increasing debts. Mel’s drive and determination should serve as an influence for all of us who pursue things others say is impossible.
http://www.davidharrisonwright.com/atocha.html (for the painting of the Atocha)