Underwater Jackpot Discovered

There can be few more remarkable nautical finds than that of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, on this day in 1985. The wreck of the Spanish galleon, lost in the depths of the Florida Straits for over 350 years, was one of the most sought after wrecks in the ocean, and had occupied the efforts of wreckage hunters since it was lost in September 1622.

The vessel became a focus for salvagers for the sumptuous cargo it was reported to have been carrying. The ship was laden with all manner of precious artefacts which were being taken from the Spanish colonies of the New World back to mainland Spain. Gold, silver, and other precious metals formed the bulk of its cargo, along with jewels, tobacco, and indigo.

The Atocha formed part of a flotilla of Spanish vessels that was to sail in convoy across the Atlantic. Heavily armed against pirates, the Atocha was to bring up the rear, but just a day into the voyage disaster struck. A hurricane caught up with the fleet, and the heavily laden vessel, having been severely damaged on rocks just below the sea’s surface, sank to the icy depths. Of the 265 people on board, there were just five survivors.

Early attempts to salvage the wreckage proved impossible, as the Atocha lay over 17 metres (55 feet) below the surface, and technology for underwater salvage was not yet advanced. A fraction of what lay on the ocean floor was recovered, and with a second storm a few days later hampering efforts, the ship’s contents were spread far and wide.

Over the years, sporadic attempts were made to ascertain the precise whereabouts of the wreck, but none of these proved conclusive, and it seemed the Atocha and its precious cargo would remain at the bottom of the sea forever. But in 1964 a team of explorers decided to pursue the search with renewed vigour. Under the leadership of Mel Fisher, the team set about a systematic search of the Florida Keys seabed, using the latest electronic search methods. The search was often frustrating, yielding little in the way of success for many years. But the occasional item from the wreck surfaced, encouraging the team to continue its pursuit.

Finally, on 20 July 1985, the eureka moment came. An ecstatic message from Kane Fisher, the expedition leader’s son, instructed the team to “put away the charts,” adding “we’ve found the main pile!”

Piece by piece the riches that had for so long been the secret of the deep were brought to the surface. The recovery was slow and painstaking, as the treasure had to be carefully handled to ensure it didn’t disintegrate when removed from its watery resting place. As the extraordinary haul of gold ingots, silver bars, and untold other treasures were dragged to the surface it became apparent that the Atocha could justifiably be called the “wreck of the century.”

The treasure, by some estimations worth as much as $400 million, is the single biggest haul ever retrieved from the ocean. It is now housed in the Maritime Heritage Society Museum in Florida, along with fragments from the Atocha, and the incredible story of its loss and eventual retrieval.