In the early 1950s, Mel Fisher converted a shed on his family’s chicken ranch into a dive shop. He had no idea that an industry would follow.
Over the next four decades, Fisher became the world’s most celebrated underwater treasure hunter.
“He sort of invented this stuff so he could make a living out of what he wanted to do,” says Alison Osinski, Ph.D., principal-owner of Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego.
“Before he got started there was no such job as treasure salver,” she adds. “Prior to Mel Fisher, finding treasure was a fluke.”
Osinski is herself something of an occupational pioneer.
She spent several years in various aquatics-related fields, from swim instructor to park and recreation supervisor to university professor, before launching her business in 1982.
“When I left to go into consulting, people thought I was nuts,” she recalls. “There really wasn’t a field for aquatic consulting. Certainly, people weren’t doing it full-time.”
More than an inspiration, Fisher served another role in Osinski’s life: neighbor. The two often crossed paths and shared a laugh while he was a nearly penniless adventurer and she was working at a marine institute in Key West, Fla.
Among Osinski’s regrets was never investing in Fisher’s enterprise, which at the time would have run her about $100.
“He was having such terrible luck back then,” she says, “and he would always bug people about it — everyone just assumed they would be throwing money away.”
But they were wrong.
On July 20, 1985, a radio call from Fisher’s son Kane came through from their boat, the Dauntless, to Mel: “Put away the charts. We’ve got the Mother Lode!”
Kane was referring to the cargo of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, a sunken Spanish galleon that left Cuba in September 1622 bound for Spain. The Atocha carried silver from Peru and Mexico, gold and emeralds from Colombia, pearls from Venezuela, and numerous other artifacts and riches.
The ship had been overtaken by a powerful hurricane and sank, its heavy cargo pulling the vessel quickly under the waves. A small ship was able to rescue five survivors still clinging to the mast, but they were all that were left of the 265 passengers and crew.
For 363 years, the Atocha evaded discovery … until Fisher’s crew salvaged its spoils, the value of which was estimated at $450 million. It’s been said the haul marked the richest treasure discovery since the opening of King Tut’s tomb in the 1920s.
Fisher’s contributions, however, are not only measured in the worth of his catch. He believed the real value lay in conservation and restoration of the artifacts, and he insisted they be shared with the world.
So in 1987, with proceeds from the Atocha riches, Fisher purchased a building that once belonged to the Key West Naval Station. It would henceforth serve as the permanent home of the nonprofit Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society Museum .
With historical exhibits, a conservation laboratory and education programs, the facility stands as a testament to one man’s persistence, dedication and sense of duty to a profession he not only conceived, but in many ways came to embody.