It is July 20, 1985 and Today’s the Day as was every day for the prior 16 years. The difference is that on this day, the message came in over the Marine Radio – “Put away the charts. We’ve got the ‘Mother Lode’!” . Indeed they did find it; 40 tons of gold and silver; 114,000 Spanish silver coins known as “pieces of eight”, gold coins, Colombian emeralds, gold and silver artifacts, and 1000 silver ingots.
Mel Fisher was one of the most renowned treasure hunters in the world. He lived every day searching for the famed Nuestra Señora de Atocha that sank in 1622 off the Florida Keys. The Atocha was carrying a veritable boat load of copper, silver, gold, tobacco, gems, jewels, jewelry, and indigo. The load was so big that it took 2 months to record and load the cargo. After leaving the port of Havana, six weeks behind schedule, it was driven onto the coral reefs by a severe hurricane. The location was roughly 35 miles west of Key West. The ship was so badly damaged and loaded so heavily with cargo that it sank quickly.
Even though the Spanish sent ships to try to salvage the Atocha’s cargo, it was in over 55 feet of water which made diving virtually impossible at that time. Recovery efforts were further impeded when a second hurricane struck in October of 1622 that stirred the sea floor and scattered the ships remains. Efforts continued for years to locate the ship but to no avail.
Centuries later, an Indiana born chicken farmer, Mel Fisher, entered the search. Fisher was quite a knowledgeable diver had been very well known for opening California’s first dive shop and trained more than 65,000 novices in the science of scuba diving. Even his wife Dolores was an avid diver setting an world women’s underwater endurance record of more than 55 hours and 37 minutes. Their love for diving eventually took Mel and Dolores along with their 5 children to to the Florida Keys and the hunt for the Atocha. The quest was not with out loss and heartache. He lost his eldest son, Dirk along with Dirks wife Angel and crewman Rick when the salvage tug Northwind capsized. Ironically, just three days prior, Dirk located bronze cannons on the sea floor which would lead the search to the Atocha.
In 1997, one year before Mel’s passing, I was on vacation in Key West with a mission to start up a cigar magazine in central Florida. During that visit I was talking to the many shop owners and small cigar factories and was introduced to Mel Fisher who was an cigar smoker also. Given the opportunity to sit with Mel and talk about cigars and treasure hunting was a going to be one of our feature articles in our new publication. Sadly the publication never got off the ground but I held on tot he recorded interview and when we launched Stogie Press it was decided we would finally publish that interview. Here is the raw transcription of that tape where you can read in Mel’s own words the trial and tribulations of treasure hunting and some interesting cigar thoughts.
The Mel Fisher Interview
By James (Boston Jimmie) Vita
BJ: We are putting together a magazine for Central Florida cigar smokers. The premier issue is due to come out in the beginning of December. One of the feature articles is going to be Key West, Cigar shops in Key West, Cigar Makers, and the fun things to do while here.
So Larry here said the other day, hey maybe I can get you an interview with Mel Fischer and I said that would be great to put into the magazine. Talk all about what you (Mel Fisher) have done and how you have helped this town grow. So here is one of the questions I have:
Reading and seeing the interviews done with you before, You started this whole operation in 1969?
MF: Yea in the Key West area. Moved from California to Vero Beach in 1963 and that is when I went out of the dive shop business and into the treasure hunting business.
More or less retired and took up treasure hunting full time.
It was myself and 5 other guys, we, all of us, cashed out the equity in our homes, and business and paid off all our mortgagees and took off across the country, and we decided we would all work for one year with no pay. To see if we could find this treasure.
BJ: Very Good
MF: Sure enough 5 days before the year was up we hit it big, thousands of these gold doubloon and we have been doing ever since.
BJ: Where was this first find?
MF: That was in Fort Pierce, Florida. My son Kane is working their today and let’s see we have found 50 gold coins up there. So it is still happening.
BJ: There are lot of ships off Fort Pierce?
MF: Along that coast, about a 50 mile area, we found about 25 ship wrecks and have been working on them ever since 1963.
BJ: Now do you own the rights to these ships ?
MF: Yes I do.
BJ: I read in the paper somewhere that there are some law suits coming on you that you are disturbing the sea bottom and you’ve got some environmentalists upset with the salvaging. How is that affecting you?
MF: It’s not that simple, I think what it is, it’s just a treasure grab. There is a large foundation that gives money to congressmen for their expense fund and they get them to connect a sanctuary bill for them. So they build a sanctuary here encompassing Key West and Marathon and Key Largo and all the cities in the entire keys and the entire county – and all of the state and federal waters outside of the keys and way out into international waters. Now they are claiming, they own all the treasure and all the ship wrecks.
They want it all.
But they can license it out to the same foundation that is paying off the congressmen. They also get the mineral rights and the oil rights, NOAA also issues mineral rights and oil rights to that company, and then they also have acquired or completely control all of those environmental groups.
They bought ‘em out. Including Nature Conservancy, Wilderness Society, Jacques Cousteau Society, Green Peace and others. …and more than a hundred of them.
And then they use over-environmentalism to control the land and buy the land and I don’t know what you call it, um … they have to forfeit the land a lot of people are losing their land in the keys right now.
During the last 5 years or 7 years because of these over-environmentalists, that are forced on us, and those guys when they sell the land back to the government they are working in conjunction with the government at about 5 – 10 times what they paid for it. But see they ..what they do..they trash an entire area and take control of the land and the treasure and who knows.
… in this case they worked out there a few days and then left the site, about a month later they went and took videos and photographs of holes that were out in the ocean and just took it for granted that we made the holes. They were made by other companies and were using other means .. they were using crowbars and axes and machetes and tools like that to manually cut a hole into the sea grass. Then these people took it for granted that we were digging holes through the sea grass with mailboxes which is a propeller wash system. That mailbox system uses low pressure water and it is impossible to dig a hole through sea grass with one of them even if you put it on full speed and dig all day long you won’t, it won’t dig it’s absolutely impossible.
So those were holes that were done by others using high pressure water jet equipment to undermine the sea grass, and I have video of them doing that – the other companies they were working out there. I first found that wreck , 32 years ago. 32 years ago I found and have been working off and on it ever since. So have, about a dozen or fifteen other companies been working on it. And uh.. they just picked me out to beat me in court then everyone else would give up.
BJ: With all that you do, how do you return back to the environment. – What do you return back to the environment from your operation?
MF: Well on the very site … on that wreck site, we have created a magnificent coral area. That wasn’t there when we started, it was all sand and after we dusted of the sand and this algae and trash and poisons that come down out of the everglades we dust off to the barren bedrock and that gives a clean place for Corals to attach themselves to grow.
So we’ve built some coral reefs. (Showing me some photos) We did that out here in the Atocha and there’s one area out here, that’s where sea fans are growing about a foot high and there was treasure in the silt around the sea fans.
So we dusted it off with the mailbox. It, just seems like a farmer cultivating his field. Turn over the silt and sand and the stuff starts growing like mad. So it’s a great tall multiplied proliferation of sea fan there.
BJ: Let’s talk a little about cigars, what got you into wanting to have you name on a cigar?
MF: Um , well …I’m a heavy smoker, and I got a patent on a marinating process to eliminate the tar and carcinogens from the tobacco not only for cigars but for cigarettes too. It also has other things in it.
BJ: Don’t give the secret ingredients but – the ingredients in this cigar will help to reduce the tar?
MF: It eliminates about 90% of the tars and carcinogens so when these new girls are trying them out, they puff on one and it won’t give them cancer. And then, uh .. they smell good too. (showing me the actual product). And then these things make you feel better.
BJ: Cigars always make me feel better. (Laughing)
Larry the Friend of MF: What it really does is; it enhances your evening, your after dinner and it will enhance the flavor of the room you are in, and it will give off an aroma that will not be unpleasant to women. Because all women are turned off by the smell, but this cigar will put off an aroma that the women will not be offended to smell.
BJ: How Interesting. And this is your patent?
MF: Yes and I was signed my first contact with him (pointing to Larry), ..the Conch Republic Cigars, and I finally worked with him to get a hold of some cigarette companies too . And… since I am the King of the Conch Republic, I have a lot of fun with it. It is good to be king.
I get to create all these women that become ladies and duchesses and princesses and ladies in waiting and you get a free cigar and a diploma so they can prove their royal title and they can help me fight the government.
BJ: When are these coming out?
Larry: 2 weeks.
BJ: I will be able to find these in up in the Melbourne Florida area?
Larry: They will be distributed all over the United States.
MF: It comes out in a treasure chest box , and then after it is empty they can use it as a jewelry box.
Larry : We wanted to have one of these Atocha things in one of the boxes,. We would be the only ones that know which box it was in – a gold Coin. So upon receiving a nice cigar could you stand a chance of owning a piece of the Atocha.
JV: A golden Hershey Bar.
Larry : They will be in glass tubes like this right here ..of course this will have a wax seal on it and the words World’s Greatest Treasure Hunter and “Today’s the Day”. We will have his picture on top of the box and a picture of the Atocha on the front of the cigar box, and his signature will be there on the top of every box.
BJ: So how did you come cross this patent, you had folks working on it, an idea you had?
Larry: Basically it was something Mr. Fisher and I were discussing for several weeks, basically a month, on how to do some stuff, trying different formulas to do this and do that, and finally just.. Bingo! We came up with something we never thought about and I tried it and it worked.
BJ: Has this patent been granted or is it still…
Larry: NO – Applied for.
MF: I did buy a cigarette manufacturing machine, 45 years ago and I did some experimenting with this process then. Everybody likes it, but I went into the scuba diving business instead of the cigar business.
BJ: You made your money in the Treasure hunting business. In all your treasure hunting did you find any artifacts of the types of tobacco products that were smoked by the Spanish?
MF: Yes we have. When the Atocha went down, it went down all in one piece and it was sitting flat on the bottom in some mud, and the tip of the broken mast was still sticking out of the water. And uh , it was about 80 ton of silver and bullion, that was holding it down, there was 180 bales of tobacco loaded in on top of the treasure. Because they needed something that was light weight because they were over loaded with gold and silver. So the tobacco was profitable thing to ship across the ocean and what they did back then, they bailed it tightly in animal skins and they sewed it up very good and dipped it in talo several times and this would keep the bales so that it would not get salt water into it when crossing the ocean.
When the ship sank all the bales floated up on the underside of the decks and pushing up on the ceiling – 180 bales, and that made it two forces one force this way and the other force this way. And in a period of a month the ship rocked back and forth with the waves and the wind, it cracked off the ribs off of each side of the big keel. The keel was like 4 feet wide and 100 feet long, so the ribs cracked off because the silver would not let the bottom ribs move but the whole ship was moving . So it also cracked the ribs off where they splice into the sides of the ship. And so those two rectangular holes, 1000 silver bars that were salvaged remained down there and the rest of the ship floated up with the tobacco.
The tobacco carried the ship for another 10 miles or more. and uh… we just now are getting to that area and have recovered 3 silver bars , there is one of them right here. (shows me a bar) The serials on them match the manifest for the king’s taxes which was loaded in the stern. The king had not shipped tax money to Spain for 5 years and he got 20% tax on every business in this hemisphere for 5 years but they just stacked the gold and silver up. Also, the bishop of Peru was in charge of not only delivering the kings taxes, but he was responsible for delivering the church collection money from all the catholic churches from Mexico to South America and North America. For 5 years – five years of collection money because they were at war for five years and they didn’t dare ship anything or keep anything on the boats.
So when the war ended in 1622 they loaded all the treasure in and all the church money and taxes and everything. The church money and taxes were in the stern, kept separate from the other treasure in the middle of the ship. So when they put it away they put all that high value stuff also in that part of the ship along with 28 wealthy merchants, who were over here for 10 or fifteen years and they made their fortune and were going home with it, now that the war ended, and all that was in there too.
So we found three of these serial numbers that match right in that area and right by there are 297 more of them. Got the numbers on all of them. And then there’s …uhh… haven’t figured out the numbers ..but about 5 or -6 thousand times 34 would be about how many nickels and dimes were in the church collection. We found one box of those out there, so far. So we are getting hot, we are getting close. If we find that , the estimated value is 4 – 4 .5 billion dollars. But of course the federal government is trying to get it. And the only trouble, it is on the Atocha and Margarita..and I already beat them in court.
I am grandfathered in, so probably the only ones I have a hard time doing is the new ones I’m finding, and other wrecks I have found in the meantime.
BJ: Now these bales of tobacco were they intact and still water proof or did they seep over the years.
MF: I don’t know , I would imagine they would, some of it would float away with the tides and winds, just like when they throw bales of marijuana overboard these days they end up on a beach somewhere. But I haven’t found any bales down there. But they would be in the area where we get to work though.
BJ: That’s great! So how does it really feel to be King of the Conch Republic?
MF: A lot of fun, performance, adventure, and. …
(he digresses for a moment) You may want to see the new pirate show on the second floor.
You may also want to check out the traveling exhibitions. I have 5 traveling exhibitions going on right now. And one of them is about slavery. There was a ship we found , it didn’t have any treasure on it but, we salvaged all these articles anyway and made a wonderful exhibit out of it, and it is receiving worldwide acclaim because it is one of the few exhibits about slavery that everyone likes.
So it don’t matter what color of their skin everyone enjoys this exhibit.
BJ: How would you like to go down in history?
MF: Uh …maybe it will be about Atlantis. I found Atlantis and now I got to figure out what I am going to do with it. (Laughter). It’s a big project, we will need to have a lot of cruise ship docking, everyone in the world is going to want to see it.
BJ: Wouldn’t that be fascinating?
MF : Yea that would be a project, I don’t think I can afford it , I will need to get funding help to complete that job. Maybe I can get the government to pay for it. (laughing)
BJ: Yea it can be a military base eh?
After the interview, the King of the Conch Republic knighted me as a knight of the Conch Republic in a short but memorable ceremony.
The Mel Fisher cigar was produced briefly and were distributed, the box itself is pictured here:
Mel Fisher died the following year on December 19th, 1998. He left behind a true legacy of treasure hunting, salvage, and shipping in the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in Key West.