The Wreck of The Atocha and The Santa Margarita, Spanish Treasure Fleet
In 1561, Spain began sending two fleets per year to the colonies in the New World to conduct trade. These fleets would bring much needed supplies for the growing colonies in exchange for silver, gold, crops and other products and then return to Spain. Over the years, these Spanish fleets faced many challenges, with pirate attacks and storms being the worst of them. As a result, travel was scheduled around hurricane season to eliminate most of the major weather events and it was also decided that these fleets would have to start traveling with two guard galleons, which are heavily armored ships that would be placed at the front and at the rear of the fleet for protection from attacks.
One of the most famous Spanish guard galleons was the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. As such, the Atocha carried 82 infantrymen to defend her from pirate attacks. Because she was so heavily armed, she was the most popular choice to carry items of great value and thus housed the majority of the treasures being carried by the fleet. On September 4, 1622, The fleet set sail for Spain. Altogether, the fleet accounted for twenty-eight ships. They were arranged in a single file line and headed en-route toward the Florida Keys where they would catch the Gulf Stream. The Atocha was positioned as the last ship in line, protecting the rear of the fleet. By that evening, the weather started to change. The winds began to blow and as daylight broke the next day the waves were as tall as mountains.
The storm winds actually blew most of the fleet into the Gulf of Mexico, which was somewhat of a safer position for them to be in. However, the ships located at the end of the fleet line were not so lucky. The Atocha, her sister ship the Santa Margarita, as well as three other ships in the fleet were at the mercy of the worst of the storm. Their sails and masts were tattered and torn and they were tossed around the ocean by the strong winds and large waves. They ended up near a coral reef where it seemed they may be spared. But out of the ocean arose an enormous wave that literally lifted the massive Atocha galleon and smashed her down onto the reefs. Due to the weight of the massive treasures and cannons on board, she sunk in seconds. The other ships were lost as well. The following day, a small merchant ship arrived on the scene and was able to rescue 5 passengers clinging to debris. Those five people were the only survivors out of the 265 crew members and passengers on board.
Immediate attempts at salvaging the wrecks were initiated. The Atocha sat fifty-five feet below on the ocean floor, her position easily identified by her mast which still broke the ocean’s surface. However, the efforts to recover anything were greatly limited by how long divers could hold their breath. The recovery effort was challenging so they decided to mark the location and move on to try to find the other sunken ships. One was found in relatively shallow waters and recovery was successful. However, the others were nowhere to be found.
Salvagers set off to Havana, Cuba to get the equipment needed to recover the treasures of the Atocha. But in a terrible turn of events, as they were in travel a second hurricane plummeted through the wreck site and totally destroyed the masts of the Atocha along with any remnants of the hull. When the divers returned with their equipment, there was no trace of the Atocha. For ten years, they searched for her but could not locate her. In 1626, The Santa Margarita was found and most of her load was able to be recovered. But over time, the Atocha was somewhat forgotten as she lay in wait for someone to find her.
Lucky for her, the twentieth century was a time of great invention for the undersea world. With the development of SCUBA equipment. This kind of gear was the first of its kind and allowed divers to breathe underwater for prolonged amounts of time. This really changed the game for treasure hunters. SCUBA gear allowed in part for the first large treasure recovery of our time, the 1715 Spanish fleet found just off the coast of Vero Beach, Florida in the 1960’s. This discovery really brought a lot of attention to the existence of colonial era shipwrecks in the area, sparking enormous interest.
The man responsible for discovering the 1715 fleet was a treasure hunter named Kip Wagner. He solicited the assistance of fellow treasure hunter Mel Fisher to help recover the treasures on a 50/50 partnership. Fisher agreed and he and his team worked at least two of the wreck sites until 1970. The excitement of salvaging the 1917 fueled Fisher, a lifelong treasure hunter, to discover more lost wrecks. It was at this time, Fisher decided to launch his own quest to find the Atocha. Over fifteen years of searching, and his wildest dream came true. In 1980 he discovered the Santa Margarita and then five years later, he located the Atocha. The famed galleon lay beneath fifty five feet of water off the Florida Keys, just as had been recorded immediately after her wreck in 1622.
Over the years millions of dollars worth of treasure has been exhumed from the watery graves of this fleet of ships. Described as the greatest discovery since King Tut’s tomb, the Atocha site is one for the history books. The wrecks still yield treasures to this day, and there is still much that has yet to be found. Some of the treasure has been placed on display at two of Mel Fisher’s Museums (Mel Fisher Maritime Museum Heritage Society Museum located in Key West Florida and Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum in Sebastian, Florida), some are available for purchase, and some still lay at the bottom of the sea waiting to see the light of day.