Mild-Mannered Mel Fisher Defies the Deep to Retrieve a King's Ransom in Lost Treasure

updated 08/12/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/12/1985 01:00AM

Just wait until you see the main pile," Mel Fisher used to tell his diving crew when he couldn't meet the payroll. "There'll be stacks of silver bars lined up like a brick wall on the ocean floor. There'll be bars of gold and treasure chests filled with gold and silver coins. It's all there, believe me." And they did. For 17 years, as they scoured thousands of acres of the ocean floor about 35 miles off Key West on what sometimes seemed a futile quest, the treasure hunters never mutinied against Fisher's dream. Cynics called him a charlatan, the federal government and the state of Florida tried to wrest away his legal rights to the seabed cache, and rival hunters circled his finds like sharks. Fisher just kept on searching. Then, on July 20, his son Kane, 26, radioed a jubilant message to shore: "Put away the charts! Silver bars! We've hit the main pile!" The treasure of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish king's fortune plundered from the mines of Mexico, Colombia and Peru more than three centuries ago and now worth some $400 million, had been found at last.

"It's just as though he'd seen it," says diver Pat Clyne, 38, who has crewed 12 years for Fisher. "People called Mel a fake. They said he was luring investors with ridiculous claims, but he was right. This is what Robert Louis Stevenson meant to write about. Now kids'll grow up on Mel Fisher stories."

Though his find probably has made him the world's greatest treasure hunter, the quiet-spoken, benignly smiling Fisher, 64, hardly fits the swashbuckling image of Treasure Island's buccaneers. No Long John Silver stumping the decks of a salvage vessel could have persuaded hundreds of investors to put up the more than $1 million a year he needed to finance his search for the Spanish galleon sunk in a hurricane in 1622. With single-minded dedication, Fisher calmly pursued his grail, even when the expedition took the life of his eldest son, Dirk.

The hunt for the Atocha began in 1968, after Fisher learned of the wreck from The Treasure Diver's Guide. "I read about the Atocha and liked it," he recalls. Lost while sailing from Cuba to the treasuries of King Philip IV, the 550-ton flagship of a 28-vessel fleet was carrying 250,000 silver coins, 1,200 silver ingots and 161 pieces of gold bullion. "The wreck was in 50 or 60 feet of water, so you're not likely to get the bends," says Fisher referring to the decompression sickness that can cripple divers. "It looked to be in one piece, so I figured it would be a quick and easy job. As it turned out it was broken into pieces and scattered for 10 miles."

Using sophisticated side-scanning sonar, which reveals promising mounds on the ocean floor, and a sensitive magnetometer to detect telltale metal objects, Fisher and his 20 crewmen, divers and archaeologists began sweeping the reef-studded sea for clues. "For two years we found nothing," says Fisher. "Then I was down there when we found this hole, and I came up with two musket balls. I said, This is it.' The people on the boat said, 'This is what?' I said, 'This is the Atocha.' They said, 'It looks like musket balls to us.' " Fisher dived back down and returned with the neck of an olive jar. "It was circa 1622," he says, "and that's when I knew for sure."

But the "primary cultural deposit," as academics call the mother lode, still eluded Fisher. In 1971 he found more musket balls, 19 pieces of eight, three lengths of gold chain and an anchor. In 1973 the sea yielded three silver bars weighing 76 pounds each and another anchor. In 1975 son Dirk, then 21, recovered nine cannons Fisher claimed were from the Atocha. But a week later Dirk, his wife, Angel, and diver Rick Gage drowned when their salvage ship Northwind capsized near the spot where the cannons had lain. "After the Northwind sank and my son drowned, I was disheartened," says Fisher. "I thought, 'Maybe it just ain't worth it.' But my son would have wanted me to complete the search, so I said, 'Okay, I'll keep it up until I find her.' "

In 1974 Key West lawyer David Paul Horan fell under the spell of the man he describes as "the most incredible optimist I've ever seen." As the salvage group's legal counsel, he opposed separate attempts by the feds and the state of Florida to seize rights to the undiscovered wreck of the Atocha for themselves, winning both cases for Fisher. "When Mel came to me," says Horan, "he was out of money. He owed a fortune to law firms in Miami and Washington. But I believed in him. I was two months behind in my mortgage payments, and he'd tell me he just got a hit on the magnetometer. 'Today's the day,' he would say. That was his favorite expression all through the years. 'Today's the day.' "

When the day came, exactly 10 years after Dirk's death, the people of Key West filled the streets and taverns to celebrate. As the media invaded the tiny offices and museum of Fisher's company, Treasure Salvors Inc., regular reports rolled in announcing new finds. "Mel," someone said excitedly two weeks ago, "did you hear that? They found a chest filled with coins." Fisher just smiled. "Hey Mel, they got four chests of coins." That raised an eyebrow. "Mel, it's up to seven! They've located seven chests of silver coins." Fisher smiled. "No kidding? Seven chests of coins."

Fisher has been drawn to the underwater world since he was a boy in Gary, Ind., near Lake Michigan. He nearly drowned as a lad while testing a homemade diving helmet rigged from a paint can and a bicycle pump. "I always wanted to do something adventurous," he says, "although the treasure hunting grew on me very gradually. I remember reading everything I could about pirates and treasure. I'd get my homework done in the morning and do my research on Black-beard and Laffite in the afternoon." He studied engineering at Purdue, then designed bridges for the Army during World War II. After a brief stint helping his father farm chickens, he opened California's first diving shop in Torrance and began to promote the new sport. "I started a salvage diving club," he says. "We'd go out and dive at a different shipwreck each week."

Fisher and wife Dolores, known to the folks in Key West as Deo, decided to become full-time fortune seekers 24 years ago. They had arrived home from a three-month treasure hunt near Puerto Rico to find the Ping-Pong table piled high with mail, half bills, half checks. "It was my wife's job to open the mail and answer it," says Fisher. "I turned to her and said, 'Would you rather open the mail or take a year's vacation and go treasure hunting?' She looked at me and said, 'Let's go.' "

Fisher sold his business, including the unopened mail, for $50,000, paid off his mortgage, packed their four children in the car and took off for Vero Beach, Fla. Five days before the year was up, they uncovered a wreck from 1715 loaded with thousands of gold doubloons. With his earnings Fisher was able to go in search of the big one: the Atocha.

Fisher considers his 5 percent, multimillion share of the Atocha's hoard beside the point. Some experts have quibbled with the $400 million estimate of the treasure's value as inflated, but Fisher asks, "How can you put a price on 17th-century coins and artifacts? In any case, it probably won't be sold; at least my share won't." He plans to display his treasures in his Key West museum and may mount a traveling exhibit. Fisher's backers have ranged from those who bought up his yearly issues of stock at $1,000 a share to a group of investors who pledged $4.6 million over seven years. At one low point, Fisher gave away 5 percent of the treasure for just $9,000, signing the desperation deal on a napkin. Only two weeks before finding the mother lode Fisher was forced to sell a gold bar at the bargain price of $44,000 to meet expenses. Most of his divers will get 0.1 percent of the take, while a few longtime employees will be given 1 percent, making them instant millionaires. But it was the power of Fisher's glittering dream, rather than the promise of riches, that inspired his crew's loyalty. "Sometimes we'd go as long as 24 weeks without pay," says diver Clyne. "If you went to Mel for money, he'd give you a gold coin. But what the hell, you couldn't buy food with it. Mel would say, 'Men, I don't know what I'm going to do. There's no money. I have to lay you off.' Nine out of 10 guys would stay on."

The placid, potbellied, chain-smoking Fisher is, according to Treasure Salvors' archaeologist Jim Sinclair, the Pied Piper come to life. "He's had hundreds of divers working for him over the years, making his dream theirs. The ones who hung in get to see the dream come true."

Out at sea, where Fisher's dive boat Dauntless pitched at anchor over the wreck last month, a dozen or so weary divers continued the pleasant task of bringing 76-pound chunks of pure silver to the surface. In the middle of the deck, amid a clutter of air tanks, hoses and archaeological tools, lay 40 silver ingots, their surfaces blackened with silver oxide, resembling monster charcoal briquettes. "There are at least a thousand more silver bars down there and lots more gold," said Kane Fisher, 26, who was 11 when he began searching for the Atocha with his father. A tall, lean figure who now runs the recovery operation, Kane is ever mindful of his brother's death and the unforgiving nature of the sea. "The most important lesson I learned from my father is that you can't fight the ocean," he said. "If she wants to get mean, you better get out of the way."

Late at night, with Mel at home asleep, his daughter, Taffi Quesada, 24, waited on the dockside at Key West to meet a workboat coming in from the dive site. Security men were present, and workers were on hand to unload its cargo, a ton and a half of silver. Taffi believes the treasure hunt has enriched her life in ways more lasting than money ever could. "Life's been real exciting," she said. "We've always been broke, always struggling, and, of course, everyone thought we were rich. We were raised by my father never to lose faith, to have confidence. 'Today's the day,' he always said. Then, at sunset, he'd tell us, 'Tomorrow's the day.' He doesn't have to say that anymore."

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