Mel Fisher was an undersea treasure hunter who searched for shipwrecks off the coast of the Florida Keys. In fact, he is considered the world’s greatest treasure hunter, due to his discovery of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. He grew up in Indiana, with dreams of deep sea diving. He studied engineering in college, and later served with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. Mel then started a chicken ranch in California, but also explored the undersea world as a hobby. He became one of the first Scuba divers, and opened a small dive shop on the ranch. He married his wife Dolores, and together they became avid divers, and opened the world’s first real dive shop in Redondo Beach.
They trained people to scuba dive, made underwater films, and explored the California coast looking for shipwrecks. Mel and his family eventually moved to Central Florida to assist treasure hunter Kip Wagner, who was looking for the wrecks of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet. Using a device called a “mailbox” that Mel developed, they found more than $20 million in treasure from the wrecks. And that was just the beginning of Mel’s successes.
Learn more about the History of the Wrecking Industry in Key West.
Mel’s greatest finds came in the Florida Keys. The Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita were Spanish galleons that sank off the coast of Key West in the year 1622, along with 6 other galleons from the same fleet. The wrecks were discovered in the 1980s by Mel Fisher’s team, after many years of searching. The Nuestra Señora de Atocha turned out to contain an amazing treasure trove, just as Fisher expected. In fact, the treasure is estimated to be worth about $450 million. The bounty of gold and silver bars and coins, jewelry, gems, and silverware that were uncovered can be seen today at the museum.
Learn more about the History of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha and the Santa Margarita Spanish galleons.
Fisher also made important historical discoveries. The Henrietta Marie was a slave ship that sank off the coast of Key West in the year 1700. It was discovered in 1972, and excavated in the early 1980s. This shipwreck provided an abundance of new information about the transatlantic slave trade. Artifacts that were found include more than 80 sets of shackles, two cast-iron cannon, Venetian glass trade beads, stock iron trade bars, ivory "elephant’s teeth," English-made pewter tankards, basins, spoons and bottles. In fact, it is likely the world’s largest source of tangible objects from the early years of the slave trade.
Learn more about the History of the Henrietta Marie slave ship.
The mysterious St. John’s Bahamas Wreck is a 16th century Spanish ship believed to be the Santa Clara. It is providing important information to archaeologists about the European colonization of the Americas. Recovered artifacts include such items as weapons, ceramics, olive jars, and pewterware. Excavation of the wreck is still very much a work in progress, but some artifacts can be viewed today at the museum.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is over 365 days per year, from 8:30 am to 5:00 pm on weekdays, and 9:00 am to 5:00 pm on weekends and holidays.
Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society & Museum
- Address: 200 Greene Street in Key West, Florida
- Phone: 305-294-2633
- Web Site: http://www.melfisher.org