The Dry Tortugas is a cluster of seven islands 112 kilometers west of Key West, Florida. Surrounded by coral reefs and sandy shoals, this island chain is the graveyard of dozens of sailing ships and their crews. One modern day treasure hunter mounted a search for a Spanish galleon laden with riches that went down near the islands in a hurricane more than three centuries ago.
After 16 years of searching, Mel Fisher's persistence paid off with the discovery of a treasure worth nearly half a billion dollars.
Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon is credited with discovering the Dry Tortugas islands in 1513. He named the islands for the many sea turtles living on these arid landmasses. Jack, a tour guide at the Dry Tortugas National Park says these waters have been treacherous for ships.
"Well the area has many shipwrecks, over 200 shipwrecks easily in the area,” he said. “It's because of the shoaling and because of these corals that are around."
Stories of sunken gold on these wrecks have attracted treasure hunters for years. One of the most famous is Mel Fisher, a tenacious salvager who realized his dream of finding riches beneath the waves. Fisher has since passed away, but his grandson Sean carried on the family business.
“My grandfather said, 'once you see the bottom of the ocean paved in gold, you'll never do anything else' and from that day forward he was a treasure hunter," he said.
For 16 years Fisher and his crew persevered in search of sunken treasure with one conviction.
"My grandfather would say 'today's the day' every day.' It's just a staple of his perseverance, his never-give-up attitude,” Sean added. “Mel faced so many tragedies and adversities through the years. You know people call him crazy, call him a dreamer, and say that he'll never find this wreck, this mystery wreck that he was looking for. He would always say 'today's the day!'"
On July 20, 1985, Fisher's team discovered the wreckage of Nuestra Senora De Atocha, a famous Spanish ship that sank in a hurricane near Dry Tortugas in 1622, while transporting a shipload of gold, silver, jewelry to Spain.
Finding the riches came at a price: Fisher's son and daughter-in-law died during the search for the treasure and after he discovered the treasure he found himself entangled in a legal battle with the State of Florida.
“They [Florida] wanted all of it. They would literally take everything we had, telling us they would give us 20 percent back at the end of the year,” said Sean Fisher. “Which was not the deal we had signed with them, which was 50-50."
After more than 100 court battles, Fisher won.
"We defeated the State of Florida in the federal government in the Supreme Court, and the nine judges of the Supreme Court said that it's basically finder's keepers," he said.
Fisher became the keeper of the lost treasure he discovered.
"...Gold bar, is how they would transport their gold to the Old World. The reason they call it a money chain is each link is the same size and none of them have been soldered,’ he explained. “So they can just twist a link off and use it as currency and if you could wear your wealth in the 17th century, you didn't have to pay taxes on it."
"Atocha emeralds are the most valuable emeralds in the world.... the ones like this of the deepest color and quality go for $19,000 a carat,” he said.
He says a 30.3 carat emerald is worth $595,000.
The total discovery is worth $450 million.
After more than three centuries under the sea, the pieces of treasure are carefully restored at the company's tightly guarded lab.
You can see the effective cleaning on an object over time.
Fisher says, "You can see it's just starting to clean off. So you can see the cross on this side. When we first found it, you couldn't see anything. It's all completely black. You can start to see the shield on this side."
Sean Fisher says the company's salvage operation is far from over.
"Just based what is on the manifest of what we know is down there, there's still hundreds of millions of dollars worth of treasure down there to be found,” he said. “Our boats headed out this morning. It's a beautiful day; so hopefully by this afternoon they'll call me and tell me they just found the stern castle. Today is the day."