On the second day out of Havana harbor, the flotilla encountered a devastating hurricane. The Atocha and several other vessels sank in the waters off the Florida Keys.
The quest for the Atocha took Fisher and his crew -- which included his wife Deo Fisher, three sons and a daughter -- a grueling 16 years. It was marred by the tragic loss of one of the Fishers' sons and a daughter-in-law when a salvage boat capsized, and bitter legal battles with state and federal authorities who sought ownership of the treasures and artifacts discovered along the way.
Highlights during the long search indicated that the salvors were indeed on the right trail. In 1973, three silver bars were found whose weight and tally numbers matched entries on the Atocha's manifest. In 1975, nine bronze cannons were found whose markings clinched identification with the Atocha.
Despite such clues, the search was amazingly complex since evidence suggested the galleon had broken apart and, driven by hurricane winds, scattered cargo along a long trail before finally sinking. In addition, objects were buried beneath sand, sediment and marine encrustation.
Shipwrecked in a 1622 hurricane, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha was part of a fleet of ships carrying riches from the New World home to Spain. Despite early Spanish salvage efforts, the vessel's priceless cargo remained on the ocean floor until Key West shipwreck salvor Mel Fisher discovered it in 1985.
On July 20, 1985, Mel Fisher's son Kane Fisher, captain of the salvage vessel Dauntless, sent a jubilant radio message to his father's headquarters saying the searchers could "put away the charts; we've got the Atocha's mother lode."
Ecstatic crewmembers described the find as looking like a reef of silver bars. Within days, the shippers' marks on the bars were matched to the Atocha's cargo manifest, confirming Kane Fisher's triumphant claim.
"It was surreal. I had spent most of my life looking for it, and all of a sudden there it was -- all these silver bars piled up and sticking up out of the mud, and there were fishhooks snagged on them and lobsters living in the cracks between the silver bars," said Kane's brother Kim Fisher, who had begun tracking the Atocha with his family when he was 12 years old.
The quantities of gold and silver coins and bars recovered from the shipwreck site, as well as contraband emeralds and breathtaking religious and secular jewelry, led to the Atocha's being dubbed "the shipwreck of the century."
Skilled underwater archaeologists raised thousands of artifacts from the ocean floor -- among them rare 17th-century navigational instruments and priceless weapons. Since its discovery, the shipwreck has yielded extraordinary information about the Spanish empire, everyday life aboard ship in the 17th century and subjects as diverse as shipbuilding methods and Inca silver.
"The Atocha tells the story of the Spanish empire," said Dr. Madeleine Burnside, the executive director of Key West's Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society. "There simply aren't a lot of ships in this time period."
Even 20 years after the discovery, intense investigation of the Atocha's artifacts and treasures continues under the auspices of the society.
Established in 1982 by Fisher, who died in 1998, the society is an internationally respected center for the study of early European maritime history in the Americas. The organization and its Key West museum hold the richest single collection of 17th-century maritime and shipwreck antiquities in the Western Hemisphere.
"We have a huge representative sample of every kind of thing that was found on the Atocha," said Burnside of the society's collection. "It's our goal to place those objects in both the somewhat larger context of the ship and its mission, and also to put it in a world context and show how these ships really affected the entire world."