The waters off Key West are treacherous in the best of circumstances. Given a little bad luck, they are positively deadly. For, hidden beneath the aquamarine beauty of the surface, is a vast underworld of sharp, spiny coral reefs. Overhead, the sky can turn from placid sunshine to howling gale in a matter of mere hours. Combined, these two natural phenomena have ruined the day of many a sailor and the bank book of many an investor.
On September 10, 1622, a twenty-eight ship convoy left Havana headed for Spain, loaded to the gunwales with treasure from South and Central America. A two day hurricane ended, for eight of the ships, any hope of making it home. Among these were the Santa Margarita and the Nuesta Senora de Atocha, destined to become among the most famous shipwrecks in history.
For many years, the greatest danger to ships making the passage wasn't necessarily natural. Into these waters came another menace, the fearsome pirate. Runaway slaves, disgruntled merchantmen and disinherited youth flocked to the Tortugas, Point Royal and other wild places known as recruiting centers for pirate ships and, from there, joined in the search for plunder.
Many of these pirates made the waters off Key West their preferred hunting grounds. Through the sixteen hundreds, these "dogs of the sea" gathered lavish wealth picking off unguarded ships. From their beginnings as licensed privateers in the employ of British and French kings and queens, they progressed to become freebooters, men of no nation whose only concern was the fabulous fortunes to be made from piracy.
By the early eighteen hundreds, the American Navy had cleared the southern seas of its nests of pirates. But that wasn't enough to keep those with an eye to easy money from reaping the harvest of wealth to be had from the ships sailing the seas near Key West. By the 1830's, "wrecking" had made Key West the wealthiest city in America.
By lighting signal fires and giving bad advice on routes, these nefarious wreckers would entice ships into grounding themselves on the reefs that surround the islands. The annals of the sea record literally hundreds of ships being lost on the shoals and reefs of Key West, and while many of these report that the crew was saved, oddly often the cargo was lost.
Today, wreckers have largely disappeared from Key West and have been replaced by a new breed of adventurous soul willing to brave the unpredictable seas in search of opulent affluence. Remember the Atocha? She who went to the bottom with a priceless cargo of Spanish gold and silver and other riches? Mel Fisher never stopped thinking about her it seems, as he and his "Golden Crew' searched for over a dozen years for her last resting place.
After years of fruitless searching, unfortunate deaths and horrible accidents, they hit pay dirt. On July 20, 1985, the Atocha was located, along with nearly 1,000 bars of silver and an incredible treasure of gold and jewels. Key West has become home to a whole new generation of treasure hunters since Mel Fisher's historic discovery, but the laws surrounding salvage have changed drastically, and the future of treasure hunting is questionable.
The waters of Key West have been the scene of excitement and adventure for hundreds of years... and it looks as if they will be for hundreds more to come.