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The Search Begins
Story Of Mel Fisher
The wrecks of the Spanish treasure fleets, and
the records of them, remained undisturbed
for centuries. In 1960 shipwreck historian John S. Potter Jr. published a
book, The Treasure Diver’s Guide which listed
many rich Spanish
wrecks and their presumed locations. Soon a small fraternity of ambitious
men were combing the shallow coastal waters of Florida, The Spanish
wrecks weren’t totally unknown. Art McKee, a salvage diver who lived
in Key Largo, just south of Miami, had been raising galleon cannons and
anchors since the 1930s, A building contractor named Kip Wagner had
followed a trail of silver reales from a beach near Sebastian Inlet out into
the breakers. Wagner took up scuba diving, and by the early 1960s had
discovered the remains of one of the 1715 ships. Wagner and other
treasure hunters formed a company, Real 8, to excavate the 1715 fleet.
In 1962, one of the Real 8 partners visited a California treasure
hunter named Mel Fisher. Mel had given up chicken farming to try his
hand at treasure hunting. After several shipwreck expeditions to the
Caribbean he was interested in learning about what was going on in
Florida. The news of Spanish treasure in shallow waters convinced Fisher
to join Real 8. He moved to Florida, bringing with him his wife, Dolores,
and a group that included Demothenes “Mo-mo” Molinar, Dick Williams,
Rupert Gates, Walt Holzman, and Pay Feud. Dolores, nicknamed “Deo”
was an accomplished diver and an integral part of Mel’s salvage plans.
Molinar was a diesel mechanic and diver from Panama. Rupert Gates was
a cartographer. Dick Williams was a mechanic and welder from Texas, and
Walt Holzworth had worked with Mel on a previous expedition. Feild, an
electronics wizard, had designed Fisher’s secret weapon in the search for
treasure. Like Melián’s copper diving bell, it was an existing technology
being adapted to a new use.
Feild’s device was an improved version of the flux-gate mag-
netometer. The Earth’s magnetic field is fairly constant except where it is
disturbed by the presence of a large magnetic object. When towed in the
water, the magnetometer measures variations in the magnetic field and
is therefore able to detect things made of
magnetic metals, such as iron
or steel. During World War II, the Navy used magnetometers to find
submarines, Feild and Fisher hoped to use theirs to find galleon anchors
and cannons marking the site of treasure wrecks.
Bars of gold coins, and links from some gold chains all had
This gold bosun's whistle worked perfectly when recovered. Found on the
site of the Margarita, the whistle was used to communicate orders
pertaining to shifting the sails to crewman who might be far above the
deck in the rigging.
Fisher’s group soon found wrecks. But they also found that
the 1715 ships had sunk very close to shore, where the water is turbulent
and silty. Mel was up to the challenge however. With Pay Feud’s help,
lie designed an elbow-shaped metal duct, which they called a ‘‘mailbox,’’
that fit over a boat’s propeller, Mel’s idea was to push clear water from
the surface down to the murky bottom. The first time they tried it, sure
enough, a huge bubble of clear water slowly inched down to the bottom
vastly improving the divers ability to see the wreck they were working.
And it had another important effect—the force of the propwash being
directed down blew sand off of the wreck. In one stroke, they’d figured
out how to improve visibility on the bottom and remove the vast
amounts of sand that covered the wrecksites.
The treasure found by Real 8 and Fisher’s group inflamed the
imagination of the world. A widely publicized auction of artifacts—including a magnificent dragon-shaped gold whistle belonging to Don
Juan Esteban de Ubilla, commander of the 1715 fleet—was mounted by
New York’s Parke Bernet Galleries.
Collectors weren’t the only ones interested in the treasure
wrecks, By 1967, the State of Florida placed all wrecks in state
under the jurisdiction of its Department of State. A state archaeologist
was hired. Anyone searching in state waters was required to apply for
a salvage contract specifying the search area and agreeing that 25% of all
finds would be given to the state. Over the next decade, this law would
become the centerpiece of a vicious three-way legal battle between the
United States Federal Government, the State of Florida, and Mel Fisher.
The stakes: ownership of a half-billion dollars worth of treasure and the
right of private citizens to search for and dive on historic shipwrecks.
As the 1960s ended, the salvage of the 1715 and 1733 ships
was completed. The small, tight-knit-and fractious-fraternity of trea-
sure hunters soon turned back to Potter’s book for new targets. At the
head of their list——as it had been at the head of the Casa de
1688 list—was the Atoha. Potter, perhaps relying on Bartolome Lopez
sighting of the Atocha ‘‘near the last Key of Matecumbe," reported that
the wreck was off Alligator Reef near Matecumbe Key. Matecumbe is in
the Middle Keys, halfway between Key West and Key Largo.
The Atocha had eluded Spanish salvars for nearly a half-
century, Now, although a number of groups searched for it, the Atocha
still couldn’t be found. The treasure hunters who’d had such quick
success with the 1715 fleet were baffled. Extensive magnetometer
surveys and test digs turned up plenty of iron cannons and anchors but
no copper, no silver ingots, no Atocha, The ship soon acquired an almost
mythic status. With the Sonic Margarita, it became known as one of the
Ghost Galleons of 1622.
With hopes of locating the elusive Atocha and Santa Margarita,
whose treasures exceeded $500 million, Mel Fisher joined the search in
the Middle Keys. Unsuccessful open water searches using the magne-
tometer took Treasure Salvors on an 85-mile search of the Florida Keys
from Marathon on Matecumbe Key to Key Largo, the northernmost Key,
and back. Still they found no sign of the 1622 shipwreck. Mel wondered
how his troupe of divers could be missing the seemingly well-
documented treasure. Lopez statement to the Marquis of Cadereita was
clear enough, placing the wreck near Matecumbe. Adding to the confu-
sion, an English narrative located the lost galleons “in the place of the
Cabeza de los Martires in Matecumbe.’ Cabeza meant ‘‘head’ and mar-
tires meant ‘‘martyrs,’’ yet another Spanish name for the Florida Keys.
The English version seemed to place the wreck at the ‘‘head of the
Keys,” which meant Key Largo.
Mel wasn’t the only salvor baffled by the elusive treasure.
Continental Exploration, a salvage company formed by Art McKee, Burt
Webber and Jack Haskins was looking for the Atocha as well. McKee
was by now known as the grandfather of Spanish shipwreck salvage in
Florida. Burt Webber, his protege, would later win fame by finding the
Nuestra Señora de la Concepcion, a rich galleon sunk in the Caribbean.
Haskins, a self-taught historian, was able to read the often-con fusing
Spanish accounts of the fleet’s loss. They had copies of documents from
the Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, which they believed showed
conclusively that the 1622 fleet was lost near Matecumbe Key.
The Archive of the Indies is home to thousands of bundles of
documents representing millions of pages of testimony to Spain’s his-
torical heritage in the New World. Early Spanish documents are written
in a language very similar to today’s modern dialect. Theoretically,
almost anyone fluent in Spanish should be able to decipher these
documents without too much difficulty. But in practice it’s a different
story, The writing style is a flowing script called procesal—rounded
characters joined by unbroken chains of Arabic-like letters. Even the
trained eye has difficulty translating the illegible scrawl.
To make matters worse, there’s very little punctuation in
early Spanish writing. Translators must learn to structure sentences
from long, continuous text filled with numerous archaic abbreviations.
And though well preserved, the ink and paper have faded with time, are
riddled with worm holes or are badly torn.
During the early part of the 17th century, Spain's dwindling wealth
was highly concentrated in the Court and in the Church. In an effort to
stabilize the economy, ostentatious displays of jewelry were
discouraged. These articles were probably the possessions of wealthy
merchants and travelers.
Some links appear to be of a precise weight related to the gold escudo
coins of the period. Links of some of the chains are believed to have
been used as a "money chain."
The documents are tied into bundles called legajos, and are
housed in 14 different sections within the Archive. An individual bundle
may contain thousands of handwritten documents which may not even
relate to one another. There are 26 huge volumes and a number of
smaller ledgers that index a tiny fraction of the more than 50 million
items on file. But, usually the only way to learn what information a
particular legajo might contain is to wade through it page by page.
Mel knew that his competitors had documents from the
Archive relating to the 1622 fleet. He decided to visit Seville to research
the galleons. As Mel and his wife and partner, Deo, wandered through
the repository, it became apparent that the valuable clues to the Atocha’s
whereabouts were beyond their expertise. How were they to find out
anything about the Atocha when they couldn’t read Spanish and
couldn’t find their way through the disorganized documents? Senora
Angeles Flores, a Spanish researcher, had helped others with research
on the 1622 fleet and agreed to help Mel. But Mel knew they needed
another researcher who could dig deeper into the records for new clues.
About the same time, Eugene Lyon, a graduate student of
Latin American History at the University of Florida was on his way to
Seville to continue research for his doctoral dissertation on Florida’s
Spanish origins. Mel and Gene got to know each other when both joined
a new Methodist church near their homes in Vero Beach, Florida. While
working on his dissertation, Gene had become familiar with the Archive,
and learned to quickly scan barely legible documents for important key
words or phrases. He had already come across several documents
relating to the Atocha, and found the cargo manifests for both the Atocha
and Margarita. The closer these documents pulled him to these historical
vessels, the more Gene became interested in unveiling the whole mosaic
of the Indies trade to the Americas.
Mel and Deo knew they badly needed Gene’s expertise.
Before they returned to Florida they hired Gene as a consultant. Just ten
days after the Fisher’s visit, Gene found the accounts of Francisco
Nunez Melian’s salvage efforts on the Santa Margarita. Lyon labored
over the rolling procesal script. The many references to Cayos de Mate-
cumbe seemed to confirm Potter’s assertion that the Atocha and Santa
Margarita went down near Matecumbe Key. But then Lyon stumbled
across a new piece of evidence; According to the account, Melián had
found the shipwreck in the Cayos del Marques—Spanish for the Keys of
the Marquis. Lyon learned from other research that the Marquis of
Cadereita had taken charge of the salvage efforts in 1623, and guessed
that the nearby island the Spanish had camped on had been named for
the Marquis. But where did this island lie today?
Two historical maps of Florida—one each from the 17th and
18th centuries—soon completed the puzzle. The 17th century map
showed a group of islands to the east of the Tortugas labeled Marqucz.
The 18th century map provided more vital information: the same group
of islands was labeled Cayos del Marquez. Apparently, the term Mate-
cumbe had been generic for all the islands along the southern tip of
Florida. Over the years they had been renamed, one by one, until today
only two islands—Upper Matecumbe Key and Lower Matecumbe
Key—still bear the original group name. To Lyon, this meant that the
wreck should be located near the present-day Marquesas Keys, about 20
miles west of Key West and a little over 40 miles from Fort Jefferson
National Monument in the Dry Tortugas.
‘‘It was easy for researchers to pass over the small bit of
information,’’ Lyon explains in his book, The Search For The Atocha,
published in 1979 by Harper & Row. ‘‘In their research, Mel, Burt
Webber, and Bob Marx (a shipwreck salvor) had concentrated on
documents written at the time of the fleet disaster or shortly thereafter.
However, as a result of the first salvage operations, one of the Matecumbes had been renamed, but only documents generated after that time
bore the new name. The modern salvors had leaped to the conclusion
that the 1622 shipwrecks were near the modern Matecumbe Keys.
Actually, they had been off by more than 100 miles.”
Another reason they all were so far off the trail of the Atocha
was that Senora Angeles Flores, though an able researcher, didn’t
understand the geography of the Keys. With the help of Gene Lyon, Mel
was the first salvor to catch the oversight. But he, too, would eventually
be misguided by Angeles Flores’ unfamiliarity with the geography of the
This crushed " Poison Cup" found by Kim Fisher in 1973, was once
ringed inside with precious stones and undoubtedly belonged to a person of
high rank. The finely etched cup was called a "poison cup" because the bowl
has a cage-type holder for a bezoar stone. The stone was supposedly able to
absorb arsenic poison, thus protecting the drinker from being poisoned.
By the summer of 1970, Fisher had withdrawn his search
contract in the Middle Keys and moved the company to new headquar-
ters in Key West, Still, the exact location of the 1622 shipwreck was
unknown, and Lyon directed Treasure Salvors to search the waters
surrounding the Marquesas Keys. The search area stretched from HaIf
Moon Shoals eastward to Sand Key near Key West—a slice of trackless
ocean almost 50 miles long and nearly five miles wide.
From a starting point ten miles west of the Marquesas, Mel’s
search boat, Holly’s Folly, captained and owned by Bob Holloway,
burned 200 gallons of fuel a day as it moved slowly eastward, dragging
the magnetometer over mile after mile of shallow bottom. There were
plenty of “hits’’ with the magnetometer--readings that showed metal
below. One by one they were checked out, turning up nothing of value.
By early fall, Mel’s search efforts still hadn’t produced results.
In September, Gene, back home in Vero Beach, received new informa-
tion from Angeles Flores. Flores wrote that an eyewitness account of the
sinking of the Santa Margarita stated that the ship went down east of the
islands Captain de Lugo's eyewitness account also showed that the
Atocha had gone down three miles further east of the Margarita. This
new information from Flares seemed to suggest that Treasure Salvors
had been searching on the wrong side of the Marquesas!
By January 1971, the 34-foot Holly's Folly had thoroughly
combed the Boca Grande Channel east of the Marquesas. The only
wreck they’d found was that of a World War 11 aircraft. Angeles Flores,
who was still researching the 1622 shipwreck in Seville, had sent copies
of the documents she’d found to Gene Lyon. Perhaps these would turn
up a new clue. Sure enough, the accounts of the Santa Margarita wreck
provided new information, but not exactly the kind that would please
Mel’s crew of frustrated divers. Angeles Flores had made a mistake in
translating the documents. When Gene examined the originals he
found that the Margarita sank veste del ultimo cavo—wcst of the “last
The treasure hunters had been correct when they started west of the
Marquesas, and now they actually had been searching the wrong side of
the Marquesas for four months.
The interior of the gold cup is studded with 20 settings
which once held brilliant emeralds. The exterior of the cup is decorated
with mythical beasts: a phoenix, lion, rabbit, dolphins, and
fire-breathing dragons. The dolphins also form the handles of the cup.
The lower portion of the bowl is divided into 24 longitudinal sections,
each filled with an incised floral design. The cup was restored by
Joseph Ternbach working in conjunction with the Queen's Museum in New
It was an unfortunate—and expensive—oversight. To date,
Treasure Salvors had invested more than $200,000 in their search for the
1622 galleons. If Mel was to continue the exploration, he would need
more money. But to attract more investors, Fisher needed some proof
that the investment would pay off—he needed a piece of the Atocha.
And he got it, Or something that he thought resembled it,
anyway. On June 12, 1971, the monotonous days of dragging the
magnetometer back and forth in the blazing subtropical sun paid off.
Bob Holloway, and the crew of Holly’s Folly recorded a large "doublepeg’’ reading on their magnetometers indicating a big piece of iron. As
usual, a buoy was thrown ovcrboard while the crew dragged on their
scuba gear to check it out. This time, it wasn’t a fish trap and it wasn’t a
lost Navy airplane. It was a galleon anchor!
Everyone except Mel was uncertain of its significance. He
donned his diving gear and plunged into the warm water. Almost
immediately he came up with the evidence he had waited for for more
than four years—one small lead musketball. This was all the proof Mel
needed. He knew that he had discovered the lost remains of the Atocha
or the Margarita.
A few days later, Don Kincaid, a professional underwater pho-
tographer aboard the Virgilona, was preparing to dive on the anchor, Don
had met Mel a few months earlier and was now on a freelance assignment
to photograph the galleon anchor, Don descended through a cloud of sand
and swam into the crater where the anchor was exposed. Suddenly he saw
the brilliant links of an 8 1/2-foot gold chain. Treasure Salvors’ newest
quaintance, who later became a company vice-president and a member
of its Board of Directors, had found the first piece of gold. Aboard the Vir-
gilona, Mel uncorked a bottle of champagne to celebrate the find, “To the
Atocha,’’ he toasted. “Here’s to the rest of all that loot—that $400
right down here. It’s real close now. I can smell it.’’
Almost immediately, Fisher applied for a salvage contract on
the site. The Virgilona crew continued its exploratory digging and quickly
uncovered more artifacts: encrusted matchlock muskets, iron cannonballs,
some iron barrel hoops, and ballast stones. Though significant finds, in
the sense that the style of the weapons suggested that the crew had
located an early 17th century Spanish military vessel, there was still
concrete evidence that these were remains of the Atocha or Margarita. Even
the two six-inch gold bars recovered on October 23 couldn’t unlock the
mystery. Although they bore markings, none of them had inscriptions
which could be compared to the ships’ manifests. The only conclusion the
divers could draw was that the gold bars were untaxed, unregistered con-
traband being smuggled back to Spain.
The success at the early summer soon paled, and the next
nine months would sorely test Mel’s optimism and the staff’s commit-
ment. Again and again, Mel told his divers, “Today’s the day,” an
expression that became the crew’s credo. Though the young divers
shared an intense camaraderie, the uncertainty grew through 1972. At
the end of each long day of diving—sometimes midnight—they still
hadn’t found conclusive evidence that this was the site of the Atocha or
Santa Margarita. The only substantial find of that year was the wreck of
an English vessel dated about 1700. Gene’s documents on the early
Spanish salvage attempts suggested that Mel was diving in the right
spot, but the infrequent finds suggested otherwise.
In the meantime, Fisher’s competitors had abandoned their
search for the 1622 galleons in the Middle Keys and turned their
attention to the Marquesas. Jack Haskins and another researcher, John
Berrier, flew to Seville to search the Archive of the Indies. Ironically,
sat just a few feet from Gene Lyon, who had returned to Seville to
continue his research for Mel. For weeks the three men carefully studied
accounts of the early salvage efforts for some clue as to the location of
the vast treasure. It became clear to Gene that the race for the Atocha and
Santa Margarita was on, "Neither (Haskins nor Berrier) believed that Mel
had found it yet,’’ Lyon recalled. ‘‘Once, we called for the same bundle
at the same time—in an archive with 40,000 bundles of paper, the odds
against that are considerable.’’
Perhaps the entry of Haskins and Berrier, and their colleagues Burt Webber and Richard MacAllaster, into the race for the
Atocha was just the pressure Treasure Salvors needed to continue its
search. After all, there were plenty of reasons to abandon the project.
Mel was again in desperate need of financing, particularly since he was
suddenly ordered to pay $250,000 to a former partner in a suit that had
been in litigation in California for seven years.
The small number of olive jars, similar to this one, found on the
wrecksite was an indication that the main part of the ship was not in the
Quicksands area surrounding the anchor. Olive jars were used to carry a wide
variety of goods during a voyage, from wine to be traded in the Americas to
agricultural products being returned to Spain and provisions for the
passengers and crew. A large galleon may have carried as many as 1000
olive jars in her
But more troublesome was the difficulty between Treasure Sal-
vors and the State of Florida. Fisher had already received a stiff warning
from Florida’s marine archaeologist, Carl Clausen. There were many prob
lems with the state. A memorandum written in
January 1972 by Alan W.
Dorian, one of the state’s field archaeology agents, lists a number of al-
leged accidents and poor working conditions during Treasure Salvors’ ex-
peditions, as well as contract violations. Between June and October 1971,
Dorian noted nine accidents or injuries and seven contract violations.
Undoubtedly, more have occurred,” Dorian wrote. “I am recommend-
ing that an in-depth investigation of possible contractual violations be
made and that positive demonstrable action be taken by Mr. Fisher and
this Division to vastly improve the physical condition of all vessels, ma-
chinery, and equipment involved in this contract.”
State agents and Mel’s adversaries also openly questioned the
authenticity of recent finds. Carl Clausen’s successor Wilburn A. (Sonny)
Cockrell was highly suspicious about the two gold bars. Bob Marx claimed
that Mel had stolen the anchor from a shipwreck salvaged earlier by Marx.
Some of the most distinctive ceramics on the site were fragments
of olive jars. Archaeologists had given them that name because initially
they were believed to have been used to carry olives. The olive jars
were all of the type defined as "middle style", which has been dated by
Hispani~ scholars to the period 1580-1750. The design on this olive jar
is probably a shipper's mark.
Though the allegations would continue for years, for Trea-
sure Salvors, the summer of 1973 would end years of uncertainty and
frustration, and be the start of a dream that Fisher and his 20 crewmen
had long awaited. The list of artifacts recovered during May and June
was encouraging: nearly 4,000 silver pieces-of-four and-eight, muskets,
swords, daggers, a pair of scissors, bar shot, a lock and key, potsherds,
barrel hoops and—perhaps the most prized possession—a pilot’s astrolabe, one of less than two dozen known to exist in the world, found by
Mel’s son Dirk, Captain of the tugboat Northwind.
Kim Fisher’s Southwind crew located gold—a long gold bar
minus official markings, a 15 3/4-karat gold disk bearing royal seals and
an assayers mark, and two gold coins stamped with the symbol of the
Despite these finds, the suspicion and harassment continued.
The Florida Department of State was given an anonymous tip that
Treasure Salvors had failed to pay its corporate tax and, therefore,
should have its salvage contract cancelled. Treasure Salvors received an
official apology from the state when it produced a copy of the receipt
showing it had paid the tax. A similar episode occurred concerning
licensing of Treasure Salvors’ tugboats. When the documents were
produced, state officials backed off. Mel was also charged with failure to
keep adequate maps of the holes dug by the boats; failure to operate the
mailboxes at proper speed at all times; and removing artifacts from the
wrecksite without the authorization of state field agents.
Bleth McHaley, who had been working with Mel for several
years in the Treasure Salvors office, was very concerned by the troubles
with the state and the negative stories appearing in the media. She knew
the power of the press. Originally from Minnesota, Bleth had kicked
around the world for a time before settling in California, where she
worked for Skin Diver Magazine, a publication about scuba diving. She
met Mel at his Redondo Beach dive shop in the l950s, and in 1971
agreed to join Treasure Salvors as director of public affairs.
Now, with the state breathing down their necks and unfavor-
able reports appearing regularly in the Miami Herald, one of the state’s
most influential newspapers, Bleth together with Don Kincaid and Gene
Lyon convinced Mel that if he was to continue to attract investors, and
avoid any more trouble with the state that could jeopardize future
salvage contract requests, the company needed some credibility. It
needed a professional archaeologist.