Last Updated on January 19, 2024
Like many a lad, tales of pirates and lost treasures of gold filled my imagination fading into the distant past with adulthood. Perhaps now, most of us believe the tales of pirates and treasures belong to the realm of fiction, alongside Captain Jack Sparrow and the Black Pearl in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
The truth is, pirates were very real in the 17th and 18th century in the Caribbean and along the Eastern Seaboard and some of those vast treasures extracted from the new world being shipped to Spain never made it.
The sinking and looting of treasure-laden galleons from hurricanes and pirate predation was not uncommon, especially in the 1600s and 1700s. That is why these ships, full of invaluable cargo, were often heavily armed and sailed together for safety in armada-like fleets.
When Mother Nature was responsible for the loss, nations and even pirates themselves often conducted massive efforts to locate these shipwrecks and recover portions of the treasure. These efforts have continued over the past 300 years.
Is real treasure still out there?
Even today, gold and silver coins wash onto the central eastern coast of Florida. Known as the Treasure Coast, I always figured it referred to the golden sand beaches and brilliant sunny skies that are part of Florida’s natural treasures. On a recent trip to the Vero Beach area, I learned that there indeed were vast treasures lost here, much of it still undiscovered.
My wife and I visited two intriguing treasure museums during our weeklong stay on the Treasure Coast. Here we saw firsthand a sampling of the discovered treasures and learned of the intrepid treasure hunters who searched – and continue searching – diligently to find these undersea bonanzas.
McLarty Treasure Museum
Located within the Sebastian Inlet State Park on a barrier island north of Vero Beach, this museum sits on the former site of the refugee camp for survivors and salvagers of Florida’s most notorious shipwreck event.
The Wreckage Site
In 1715, a fleet of twelve treasure-laden galleons left the New World bound for a financially depleted Spain. Dubbed the Spanish Plate fleet for its vast amount of silver (plata in Spanish) bars, these ships also carried large amounts of gold doubloons, precious jewels, raw gems, and gold and silver artifacts bound for the Spanish royal treasury.
The fleet set sail for Spain at the onset of hurricane season. In the early morning darkness of July 31, 1715, seven days after departing from Havana, Cuba, a powerful hurricane struck, pounding the ships laden with booty. They were ravaged by towering waves and savage winds.
Eleven of the 12 ships floundered and were torn apart on the reefs just off the shore of Florida’s central coast. Wreckage and treasure were scattered for miles.
Of the passengers and crew, more than a thousand men and women perished. The survivors, now bereft of food and water, were scattered up and down a coastline strewn amidst lifeless bodies and debris. They struggled to survive the hostile, mosquito-plagued environment in a make-shift camp until Spanish aid arrived from Havana and St. Augustine. The site was soon converted into a base for salvage operations attempting to recover the precious cargo.
The region, with its unsurpassed quantity of lost treasure, also drew pirates led by the notorious Captain Henry Jennings, the famed pirate “mayor” of Nassau, Bahamas, who drove the Spanish out and commenced his own efforts to plunder the shipwrecks.
With some intriguing technological innovations for its time, the Spanish and pirates managed to recover portions of the more accessible treasure, but as time and more storms pressed on, the site eventually became forgotten and abandoned.
The museum does a marvelous job showcasing the history of the fleet’s demise and the archeological evidence of the shipwrecks and the refugee and salvage camp with artifacts ranging from tools, pottery, and nautical equipment to cannons and weapons recovered on site. Displays also highlighted the flora, fauna, and Indigenous people inhabiting this shoreline at the time of the tragedy.
The more recent story here was told in a video and displays of recovered treasure. This begins in the 1950s with a man named Kip Wagner. The retired Florida contractor searched the coast for decorative pieces of driftwood and instead discovered Spanish coins washed up on shore.
He astutely noted that none of these coins dated past 1715.
Finding the Treasure
Wagner teamed up with a good friend and neighbor, Dr. Kip Kelso, who was an amateur Florida historian. In 1959, Dr. Kelso’s research uncovered an authentic 18th century map of eastern Florida, published a mere fifty years after the 1715 Fleet disaster. The map clearly identified the Sebastian inlet area as the sunken location of the flagship of the admiral commanding the Plate Fleet. Additional research identified the actual location of the Sebastian inlet salvage camp.
Their primitive metal detection efforts yielded immediate discoveries.
As time went on, Wagner organized a group of seven other intrepid individuals who were closet treasure hunters. This group, organized as the Real Eight Wagner, included several divers who were also Air Force and NASA officers. They quickly developed more modern shipwreck search technologies including an underwater metal detector and a method for blowing away sand sediments from the shallow ocean floor.
Their efforts slowly yielded hints of treasure troves yet to found. The real challenges were that the eleven shipwrecks were drug across the reefs for miles, scattering their wealth along the way. Only discovery of a galleon main hold could perhaps result in a single massive find.
They persisted, often simply trusting their gut.
When one of the 1715 shipwrecks was discovered seventy miles away just south of Fort Pierce, Wagner sent an associate, California diver Mel Fisher, to work the site.
In July 1964, Fisher hit paydirt coming across a “Carpet of Gold.” This small area contained thousands of Mexican, Peruvian and Columbian gold coins. To this day, Fisher’s “Carpet of Gold” discovery remains the most lucrative find of the 1715 Plata Fleet treasure.
It is believed that six or perhaps eight of the eleven shipwreck sites have been discovered, but there is an untold amount of treasure still resting on the shallow ocean floor.
Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum
When it comes to viewing actual recovered Spanish treasure including gold and silver bars, coins, and other Pieces of Eight, precious gold, silver, and gem encrusted jewelry, loose gemstones, and plundered artifacts from Indigenous artisans, no museum is more impressive than Mel Fisher’s Treasure Museum on the mainland in Sebastian, FL.
The museum displays finds from the Spanish Plata Fleet of 1715 and riches recovered from Mel Fisher’s greatest find, the sunken treasure from the 1622 shipwreck of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha off the coast of Key West.
Fisher and his diving business family moved from Southern California to Vero Beach and started his full-time treasure hunting career in 1963. He established his own treasure diving operation and spent the next six years partnering with the Real Eight Wagner group successfully salvaging the 1715 Fleet.
Search for the Treasure
Fisher then turned his attention to the Florida Keys and spent 16 years searching for the wreckage of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, one of a fleet of ships that sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. The Atocha was heavily laden with copper, silver, gold, tobacco, gems, and indigo from Spanish ports in the “New World” bound for Spain.
Forever the optimist, Mel Fisher’s personal motto was “Today’s the day!”
His search resulted in bits and pieces of treasure, but the effort cost him dearly, losing a son and a daughter-in-law to a tragic night-time salvage vessel sinking. Still, he pressed.
In July of 1985, his diving team struck gold. Not just gold, but vast treasures of gold, silver, jewelry, precious gems, and more.
They had discovered the Atocha’s “motherlode” which included 40 tons of gold and silver, plus 114,000 Spanish silver coins in addition to the nearly priceless gems and jewelry that littered the ocean floor.
Upon receiving the news, his operation center in Key West exploded with exuberance. After years and years, SUCCESS! Champagne flowed as news spread around the world.
The total discovery was worth over $450 million. This is still considered the largest underwater treasure find in history.
Today, the Fisher Family is well into its third generation of treasure hunting and continues the search for the remaining cargo of the Atocha and her sister ship the Santa Margarita. The stern hold of the Atocha, also laden with riches untold, has yet to be found and it is estimated that nearly a billion dollars of gold, silver, and emeralds remains undiscovered.
A Journey Through Time
Visiting the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum is a journey through history. Exhibits showcase an incredible sampling of the treasures recovered, and also walks visitors through the journey of Mel Fisher’s 16-year search, filled with diligence, tragedy, discovery, and, finally, success.
The magnificence of the intricate gold, silver and gem encrusted jewelry on display is stunning. So is the hoard of gold and silver coins and heavy ingots recovered. The museum is both educational and exciting. In addition to a brief introductory video, there are numerous interactive displays. My favorite was an authentic Atocha gold bar that I could actually lift to feel its weight.
Sadly, the bar remained inside its glass box as it was too big to fit through the opening for my hand.
I found both museums to be a eye-opening. They destroyed my jaded belief that sunken treasure resided solely in the realm of myth. Now I know the truth. My boyhood fantasies belong in the real world. There are indeed vast, undiscovered treasures at the bottom of the sea, still resting patiently, waiting to be found.
Perhaps today is the day!