Mel Fisher grew up in the midwest town of Hobart, Indiana. At the age of 12, after he'd discovered the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, he decided that he wished to explore the undewater world, and experimented with building his own diving helmet with the aid of a friend.
His family moved to Gary, Indiana, where he graduated from high school. He went to Pordue University, studying mechanical engineering. He also joined the Army Reserve.
After Pearl Harbor, Mel was put on active Army duty. The Army sent him to France with the Army Engineers.
At the end of the war, Mel was discharged from the Army. He traveled around for a bit, befoire settling in Tampa, Florida, where he worked for four years as a building contractor.
In his spare time, he learned how to skin-dive...and eventually how to scuba dive, with the new aqualung which had been invented by Jacques Cousteau and Emile Gagnan in France in 1941. Indeed, he traveled all the way to California to purchased his aqualung from a Frenchman in California. However, once he'd used up his single tank of air, he had no way to refill it, and did nothing further with it for a time.
He went with his parents when they moved permanently to Torrance, California, where his father founded a chicken ranch. Fisher even used the GI Bill to educate himsef in the field.
However, Fisher didn't find chicken ranching very satisfying, while his hobbies were much more so. Skin diving was becoming popular. Fisher built a machine shop in a shed, and began designing spear guns. The gear proved so popular with fellow enthusiasts that Fisher expanded he business to include equipment for scuba divers. He also added an air compressor so that he could fill his scuba tank. That sealed the deal with the locals, who now had a closer place to go to get their own air tanks filled.
Fisher expanded his business even more, opening a store front, and thus founded the first specialized skin diving shop in the world.
At the age of 31, Fisher married for the first time. His father had sold the chicken ranch to the Hortons, originally from Montana. Mel fell in love with the daughter, Dolores, who embraced his interests of skin and scuba diving.
Their honeymoon was actually a working vacation. They went to the Florida coast and dove among shipwrecks (not treasure wrecks, in particular), and Mel shot film of this, which he eventually sold to the Voit diving equipment manufacturer.
Fisher built a dive shop in Redondo Beach, CA, using money earned by he and his wife by diving for lobsters.
Mel's Aqua Shop was immediately successful.
In 1954, son Dirk was born. In 1956, son Kim was born.
Mel continued to expand his business, making underwater films to show on TV. He had a TV series for 4 and a half years.
When Mel and some friends visited Mexico, he was bit by the treasure wreck bug. A local told him of "a big treasure aboard a fabled ship known as a Manila Galleon, which had sunk in Acapulco Bay." Although he and his friends searched for the wreck, they didn't find it, and when Fisher did more research he learned that there was no point in it - the Mexican government would take 100% of any treasure found.
Back in the States, however, Fisher began to hunt for sunken treassure, as well as maintaining his scuba business. Indeed, the two frequently combined, with his dive customers becoming partners in hunting for treasure wrecks.
Fisher and the oother treasure hunters initially were successful salvaging modern material - ships anchors and so on. Then Fisher decided to search for the Nuestra Señora de la Concepciòn, sunk on the Silver Shoals - the reefs north of the Dominican Republic.
Most of the wrecks on the Silver Shoals are covered with from 10 to 20 feet of coral, making them very difficult to get to.
Fisher made a few expeditions to the Silver Shoals, with little success. On one such expedition, he stopped off in Florida to visit Kip Wagner (whom he'd been told about by Lou Ullian). Wagner showed Fisher the wreck he and his Real Eight people had been working on, but only on weekends. Fisher came up with the idea of a partnership - he'd recruit professional divers to excavate full-time, and they'd split the proceeds 50-50.
Fisher sold his business and home in California, and moved with his family to Florida, as did the 6 men he'd recruited to work on the wrecks.
The Treasure Salvor tream worked for 5 days short of a year without finding anything...but then, using a new invention of Fisher's called the "mailbox," they found gold. And more gold
That set them on their way.
At the end of the late 60s, things wound down on the Cabin Wreck. According to Burgess, "Treasure SAlvors...began having contractual difficulties with Real Eight." [Real Eight being Kip Wagner's group.]
Mel decided to look for the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which had sunk off the Florida coast in 1622.
Fisher borrowed money to finance the expedition. He formed another dcompany, Armada Research, "to keep his various business deals from becoming entangled with one another."
Fisher and his crew searched for the Atocha for months, without success. Rival treasure hunters, for example Burt Webber, were also searching for the Atocha in the area, also without success.
Acting on information given him by researcher Ben Lyon, Mel had begun searching around the Marquesas Keys. In 1971, the first hint of success was found - Don Kincaid found a 8 1/2 foot long gold chain (later valued at over a quarter of a million dollars.
Fisher then leased the area fron the state of Florida, but there was no further success for two years.
Things were at a low ebb through 1972, according to Burgess. The state of Florida claimed Treasure Salvors was breaking their contractual agreement and often working outside their salvage areas. Rival treasure hunters claimed Fisher was salting the claim in order to attract new investors. Academic archaeologists wanted them stopped because they were "raping historical shipwreck sites in their hell-bent drive to find treasure."
There was also turnover at TReasure Salvors, with only one original member, besides Fisher, still there, Mo Molinar. Some had left because it was no longer fun (Rupert Gates), others because they'd been financially wiped out, and their family lives had suffered (Fay Feilds).
Divers find a "pocket" containing about 4,000 Spanish silver coins, and a rare bronze astrolabe.
June 15, 1973
In order to assuage public opinion, Wagner hires an academic archeologist, R. Duncan Mathewson III, to assist them. Fisher sent him a telegram on this day, offering the job.
The team now consis of the Fishers, photographer and diver Don Kincaid, researcher Gene Lyon, publicist Bleth McHaley.
after June, 1973
Mel's two oldest sons were captains of their own ships. each captain of their own ships. Dirk was the captain of the 54-foot Northwind, Kim the 59-foot Southwind. These vessels were Mississippi tugboats converted for salvaging by the addition of large double stern-mounted blowers on each vessel.
Mel Fisher's youngest son, Kane, dove down to a "crater" excavated by the Southwind, and found a silver bar. There were numbers incised on the bar which, when compared with the manifest of the Atocha, proved to be from that ship (although rival treasure hunters claimed that it had been a plant. Their claims were later proved false.)
Tragically, about a week after the Atocha was thought to have been found, the Northeind capsized and sank. Diver Rick Gage, and Dirk and his wife Angel died. Others on the ship, including Don Kincaid, did survive.
Despite the tragedy, the Treasure Salvors continued to search for the Atocha, and finding treasure scattered along the seabed. Much of the treasure and artifacts went into Mel Fisher's museum, which was located aboard a life-sized galleon replica, the Golden Doubloon.
It would take 111 more courtbattles and ten years from the day of Dirk's death, for the Atocha to actually be found...in 1985.
Bob Moran and the crew of the Plus Ultra discovered three large anchors, dated 1618, hooked onto the outer reef.
Monday, October 13, 1986
For tax reasons, none of the treasure would be converted into cash. The treasure items themselves would be distributed to investors on a point system.
To be continued
Books on Mel Fisher
Sunken Treasure: Six Who Found Fortunes, Robert F. Burgess, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1988
Pieces of Eight by Kip Wagner, as told to L.B. Taylor, Jr., 1966
The Search for the Atocha, Eugene Lyon, 1985
Treasure of the Atocha, R. Duncan Mathewson III, 1986
General Treasure Hunting BooksThe Treasure Diver's Guide, John S. Potter, 1960.