Mel Fisher was an American treasure hunter best known for finding the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
Fisher was a Indiana-born former chicken farmer who eventually moved to California and opened the first diving shop in the state. He attended Purdue University and was a member of The Delta Chi Fraternity. In 1953, he married Dolores (Deo) Horton who became his business partner. She was one of the first women to learn how to dive and set a women’s record by staying underwater for 50 hours. Mel and Deo had five children: sons Terry, Dirk, Kim and Kane, and daughter Taffi. On July 13, 1975, Mel’s oldest son Dirk, his wife Angel, and diver Rick Gage died after their boat sank due to bilge pump failure during their quest for treasure.
When asked why he had chosen his risky and uncertain trade, Mr. Fisher often said, ”For the fun, the romance and the adventure.” While he searched for treasure he liked to say hopefully, and repeatedly, ”Today is the day.”
Mel found the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sank in 1622 near the Florida Keys and was named after a shrine in Madrid for protection. He discovered the wreck July 20, 1985. The estimated $450 million cache recovered, known as “The Atocha Motherlode,” included 40 tons of gold and silver; there were some 114,000 of the Spanish silver coins known as “pieces of eight”, gold coins, Colombian emeralds, gold and silver artifacts, and 1000 silver ingots. Large as it was, this was only roughly half of the treasure that went down with the Atocha. The wealthiest part of the ship, the stern castle, is yet to be found. Still missing are 300 silver bars and 8 bronze cannons, among other things.
As a result of this find, a handful of people, including Fisher family members, investors, and a lawyer for Mr. Fisher, David Paul Horan, became millionaires.
In November of 1998, Mr. Fisher admitted selling several counterfeit gold coins at his gift shop in Key West, and agreed to repay to purchasers the prices of the coins — $2,500 to $10,000. It had been asserted that they were from a 1733 Spanish fleet that went aground off the Florida Keys.
Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum Key West, Florida
Mr. Fisher’s success in discovering treasure and in winning title under traditional admiralty law led environmentalists, historians and archeologists to persuade Congress and states to control salvage. In 1987 Congress approved the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, which put an end to admiralty law and conveyed to states the title to wrecks within three miles of the coastline.
Mel Fisher, the former chicken farmer who became a Horatio Alger figure among undersea treasure hunters, died December 1998 at his home in Key West, Fla, with complications from cancer. He was 76.