Diving into the Emerald Sea

Nuestra Señora de Atocha (or Our Lady of Atocha) was a Spanish treasure galleon that sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. She was heavily laden with copper, silver, gold, tobacco, gems, and indigo from Spanish ports in what is now Colombia and Panama and Havana and was bound for Spain. The Atocha was named for a holy shrine in Madrid, Spain. It was an armed Spanish galleon that served as the rear guard for the Spanish fleet. It would trail behind the other ships to prevent an attack from the rear.

Much of the wreck of Atocha was famously recovered in 1985 after many, many years of searching by an American commercial treasure hunting expedition led by Mel and Deo Fisher. Following a lengthy court battle against the State of Florida, they were ultimately awarded sole ownership of the rights to the treasure.

So in 1985 your intrepid romantic (that would be me) was reading about the discovery while waiting for a plane at LAX. A newly certified scuba diver, the whole thing just mesmerized me and I promptly jumped on a plane to Florida. I rented a car, drove to Key West and headed right to Sloppy Joe’s Bar where I knew Mel and his crew hung out.

I started chatting with a burly fellow who looked like he might know what the lay of the land (or sea! ) was. When I told him I wanted to dive on the wreck he looked at me as if I was crazy and told me that the site was heavily guarded and only Mel’s crew were allowed out there. But if I wanted I could check out Mel’s Treasure Salvor’s Museum on the wharf. The next day I trotted down there and met a wonderful fellow named Don who I think was amused at the fact that I had flown 3000 miles to see the remains of the Atocha with absolutely no plans! Don introduced me to Mel and his wife (both absolutely charming!) and allowed me to try on the solid gold chain they had just discovered – it wrapped around me twice! The treasures in that museum and in the rooms where they were carefully cleaning them took my breath away. Not only because of their value and beauty but because so many people had touched these artifacts — from the people who mined and made them to the sailors on the ship to the passengers so excited to be bringing their goods home. These passengers also included rich merchants who hid treasures in their robes – things that were not accounted for on the insurance manifest. These hidden treasures were among some of the most spectacular finds on the wreck.

Don then told me something that stunned me – he said that a crew from National Geographic was in town and if I want to meet them on the wharf the next morning I could dive the wreck! I was so excited I did not sleep at all then went through a slight panic attack when I realized I had no idea where I was going or how rough the waters might be. Remember, I had JUST gotten my scuba license. But there was no turning back and the next day I was on the wharf ready to go.

The wreck was only about a mile from shore and as I recall in about 90 feet of water. Because the treasure had scattered we had no idea what we might find that day but to my utter joy they brought up nearly 90 pounds of emeralds! It was a sight I will never forget – seeing those gorgeous uncut gems sparkling in the sun. And to see the remains of the wreck on the floor of the sea…thinking about the lives lost and the hopes dashed and that now their story was alive once again…it was quite emotional.

Unforgettable and perhaps one of the most exciting trips of my life. Don and I talked about doing an exhibit in San Francisco but trying to coordinate it was far to complicated. We stayed in touch for awhile and in fact my parents (Helen and Don Ewald) were so dazzled by my story that they went to Key West and met Mel and Deo.

I still wear a piece of eight Mel gave me and have an autographed photo of him that he inscribed with his favorite motto “Today’s the day!” And every once in a while I dream about gold bars and emeralds.