As soon as the hurricane would pass, I’d beg my dad to take me down to the ocean. Down to the shore, where I knew the sand would be freshly blown about, and there was a chance a treasure would be unearthed, just waiting for me, as if it had been mine for centuries.
This was life as a child growing up in Vero Beach, Florida, the famed ‘Treasure Coast’. We knew Spanish ships wrecked along our coast hundreds of years before, so we weren’t crazy to think there might be some precious coins laying in the newest layer of sand to see the light of day. We’d heard stories of people finding precious artifacts. Every now and then, I’d see the fancy metal detectors being swung back and forth, skimming the sand, and drool over the high tech tool, wishing I could also have something so fancy to help me find my share of gold. But we didn’t have money for such craziness. My only chance at treasure hunting came after a storm, when a fresh layer of sand was left behind for me to sift through without fancy tools.
I never found any, but someone else did. A fellow named Mel Fisher. He was—and is—the king of treasure hunters, at least in my book. This man dedicated decades of his life—as did his family– looking for sunken treasure, using much better tools than the metal detector I drooled over.
Each and every day, he’d wake up and declare, ‘Today’s the Day!’
He never doubted he’d find the treasure from the Spanish shipwrecks peppering our coast. And ultimately, he did. Not on the shore, but in the water. One was discovered right there off the shore of my hometown…in those same waters where I swam throughout my childhood. They called it the ‘1715’ wreck, because the ship went down in 1715, but locally they called it ‘Corrigan’s Wreck Site’ (I was always told it was because of its proximity to the Corrigan home nearby—others say it was because Corrigan was the guy who discovered the site). You have to understand, I went to school with a Corrigan. This was a small town, with one high school for our city and those nearby, so we all pretty much grew up together, knew each other, and this made the connection to these ship wrecks real for many of us. To me, it made it all the more sentimental when Mel Fisher’s family started selling the coins, and I knew one day I’d have to have my own.
At one point, my father even worked on Mel’s son’s car, fixing it knowing he wouldn’t be paid, because all of their money was being poured into their treasure hunting, then fighting to keep the treasure they found from the government (which insisted it should get to keep 25% of it–a judge ultimately decided otherwise on the Atocha because it was found in international waters, not Florida waters). My father was good with a promise that he’d be paid with a coin when they found the famed Atocha, another ship that sank during a hurricane back in 1622, and was said to have more treasure than any other ship that went down. And you know what? When the family did find that treasure, down near the Florida Keys, Mel Fisher honored that promise, even though his son was gone, having died when their boat sank during the quest for the treasure, just one week after having found the first cannon confirming it was the Atocha wreck site. Mel Fisher honored his promise, paying with a coin from the wreck, which my father promptly passed along to a relative who had loaned him money for the down payment on our house. Sadly, that’s as close as I got to a coin for many years.
The famed Treasure Hunter Mel Fisher made his home in our area, and to this day, the museum honoring his finds and his family is still open to visitors who want to take the time to learn more about the adventure. You may even be lucky enough to meet one of the Fisher’s while you’re there, as I did on my last visit. Mel’s grandson, Cam, was working in the shop, and it was fun sharing stories with him. I highly recommend you give it a visit. You can even hold a gold bar while you’re there. I can’t even imagine what that’s worth (and yes, they have a guard on property to protect the treasure).
That museum is also where you can buy a coin or two, if you can find the funds. I had to wait until I was much older, but I did finally buy a coin from the 1715 wreck. I wear it around my neck nearly every day, a reminder of where I come from and the lesson to keep pursuing my dreams with that same Mel Fisher attitude that ‘Today’s the Day’.
There’s another museum in Key West, where Fisher brought up most of the treasure from the Atocha, and it’s possible to also invest in the treasure hunting that is still going on at the site, decades after the original finds. If you invest, you can even go out to the treasure site and become part of the crew. They’re still bringing up emeralds from the part of the ship they now call ‘Emerald City’.
I’ve bought coins from the Atocha, too, and consider them not just a great investment, but a treasured piece of the past. But it’s not about how much it’s worth in financial terms.
I am a fan of the history of the treasure–and the story about finding it. The fact that it’s all a part of my own history in some small way just makes it that much more priceless.