Mel Fisher (August 21, 1922 – December 19, 1998) was an American treasure hunter best known for finding the 1622 wreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha 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. In addition to the Atocha, Fisher’s company, Salvors Inc., found remains of several shipwrecks in Florida waters, including the Atocha’s sister galleon the Santa Margarita, lost in the same year, and the remains of a slave ship known as the Henrietta Marie, lost in 1700.
The site of the wreckage of the Atocha, called “The Bank of Spain”, (a sandy area 22 feet deep and within 200 yards of the anchor location), is still being worked on and treasures are slowly being recovered. The emeralds from the Atocha are some of the finest emeralds in the world. They come from the Muzo Mine in Colombia. The emeralds of Muzo are renowned for their color and are the world standard by which all emeralds are judged.
Fisher was an 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. Mel struggled through decades of hard times treasure hunting in the Florida Keys with the motto Today’s the Day.
Mel Fisher hired Duncan Matthewson as chief archaeologist during the Atocha period, and Salvors, Inc. became experts in recovery and conservation of underwater artifacts, remaining active as of 2009. Fisher blended private and public interests when it came to underwater cultural resources. The Supreme Court of the United States confirmed Fisher’s ownership to the recovered treasure and transferred ownership of 75% of the appraised value of all material recovered. Concern in the U.S., and Florida specifically, for protection of submerged archaeological sites contributed to the 2001 adoption of the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.