salvage boat

Treasure hunters won in court to harvest Spanish wealth

By Cammy Clark - The Miami Herald


In 1985 aboard the Dauntless salvage boat, Jimmy Buffett sang atop a stack of silver bars while treasure hunter Mel Fisher and his crew swilled champagne to celebrate their jaw-dropping discovery. 

After 16 years that included a U.S. Supreme Court victory and the death of his son, Fisher's dream had come true.

In waters 55 feet below them, divers Andy Matroci and Greg Wareham had found a virtual reef made of chests full of silver coins, silver plates, silver bars, copper ingots, stone ballast and artifacts.

It was the $450 million mother lode of the 1622 shipwreck, Nuestra Senora de Atocha.

At sea, the crews of the J.B. Magruder and Dare salvage boats continue to search along the 10-mile trail of the Atocha wreck for the rest of the Spanish galleon's buried booty - and a chance to complete the odyssey of the master salvage man, who died in 1998.

"We're looking for the stern castle, where there's another 400 silver bars and over 130,000 silver coins," said Sean Fisher, Mel's grandson, who was 7 when the treasure was found.

Fisher, who inherited some of his grandfather's charisma and enthusiasm, added: "The stern castle is also where the church kept its gold and its taxes, and we don't know how much that was because the church was more powerful than the state. The church didn't have to say what they were bringing on the ship."

Also left off the manifest and missing: about 60 pounds of emeralds from the Muzo mines of Colombia.

Fisher said the gems, believed to have been smuggled on board in a 70-pound keg, are among the unknown amount of contraband sneaked aboard the Atocha to avoid the Spanish king's 20 percent tax.

The Atocha was the flagship of a 28-ship fleet traveling from Havana to Spain in early September 1622. Less than 48 hours into the six- to eight-week journey, a hurricane blew the Atocha and its sister ship, the Santa Margarita, into the reefs.

The heavy treasure of the Atocha remained where it sank, but subsequent storms scattered parts of the Atocha along a 10-mile long, 300-yard wide trail that split into two branches at about the halfway point.

The J.B. Magruder was anchored at a site nicknamed Emerald City, where nearly 7 pounds of the precious gems have been found. It is close to where the mother lode was found, in the Marquesa Keys, about 35 miles southeast of Key West.

The Dare was a few miles away, in the middle of the trail at a site dubbed the Bank of Spain, where thousands of silver coins have been discovered.

The two sites have been worked over. Still, the crews revisit them three weeks a year, when many of the 150 current investors are in town, because there's still a good chance of finding emeralds and silver coins, Fisher said.

The investors help foot the treasure hunting operating costs of about $3 million a year.

Most of the time, however, the crews are searching for the stern castle - the back of the Atocha, where the wealthy noblemen, the clergy and the captain kept their valuables.

The crews include another Fisher grandson, Josh Fisher, 28. Jose "Papo" Garcia, who used to treasure-hunt in his native Cuba, captains the Dare, and Matroci, one of the two divers who found the treasure , helms the J.B. Magruder.


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