12/23/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
Today's the day," Mel Fisher would say. He said it almost every working morning for 17 years as he and his salvage crew searched the waters off Key West for the wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a Spanish treasure ship that went down in a storm in 1622. "Today's the day," he'd say, even as his divers came up empty-handed for months on end, or his shaky finances threatened to collapse. In 1975 his son and daughter-in-law drowned in a salvage accident. After recovering from the shock, Fisher went back to work, promising again that "today's the day."
Mel Fisher's day was July 20, 1985, when his youngest son, Kane, 26, radioed an exultant message from the dive site: "We've hit the main pile! Put away the charts!" The trove has so far yielded gold chains, some 200 emeralds, silver plates and cups and 34 tons of silver bars. Fisher has estimated that the treasure's value could run into the hundreds of millions.
If fortune had visited Fisher in any other year, he probably would be even more famous. But 1985 saw him sharing the spotlight with other star salvagers: Barry Clifford, 40, who was able to positively identify the wreck of the pirate ship Whydah off Cape Cod; and Robert Ballard, 43, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution geologist who found the Titanic lying 13,000 feet down in the North Atlantic. Clifford had been recovering promising artifacts, including cannon, jewelry and pieces of eight, for more than a year. Then in October his crew uncovered the name Whydah on a salvaged bell. "It was tremendously exciting," says Clifford. "We'd found the ultimate proof." He believes even more pirate treasure awaits discovery nearby.
Ballard's reaction to his find was perhaps the most unexpected of the three. He says that at first he and the 47 scientists and crewmen who worked with him were exhilarated by their find. Yet almost immediately a different mood swept over the expedition. "Everyone was very sad and embarrassed that they had been so happy and excited," he said on his return from the September discovery. "Why should you find such great joy over such a disaster? You realize that you are all happy, and all the time you are looking down at a grave site and a memorial to so many people." Profoundly affected—Ballard said that he had not been "that deeply depressed" in years—the Titanic discoverers held a shipboard memorial service at 2:20 a.m., the hour the great liner sank on April 15, 1912, claiming more than 1,500 lives. To discourage treasure and souvenir hunters, Ballard has kept the ship's precise location secret. He is also supporting an effort in Congress to designate the hulk a maritime memorial, protected from unauthorized salvagers.
Back in Florida, Mel Fisher can't hide the location of the Atocha, which lies in 55 feet of water about 40 miles west of Key West. He keeps at least two boats over the site around the clock, and the Coast Guard has promised assistance if anyone tries to jump his claim. The loot already brought to the surface resides behind seven layers of security systems in Fisher's Treasure Exhibit museum in Key West. "I get turned on by the kids who come to see the fascinations of the past—something they never got from books," says Mel. Sometime next year much of the treasure will be divvied up among more than 500 divers, crewmen, stockholders and employees of Fisher's company, Treasure Salvors Inc. Appropriately, the distribution, like the search, will combine technology and romance. First, a computer will determine how the treasure is to be divided. After that, says Mel, designated recipients will be welcome to "bring a Brink's truck and just load up."