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Mel Fisher, Modern Day Explorer

Text by: Ashley Shelby

Mel Fisher was born in the relatively quiet town of Hobart, Indiana in 1922. From this humble beginning, Mel would go on to make one of the greatest treasure discoveries of the last century. Ever an inventor, Mel spent his childhood building new gadgets and modifying existing ones. After high school, this love of tinkering would lead him to study engineering at Alabama University and into the Army during WWII, where he worked as a mechanic fixing everything that was broken and improving anything that was not. That's where he developed a serious interest in diving. During the war, SCUBA was being developed for underwater warfare. According to the official website of the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Museum in Florida, the "Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus (SCUBA) made work and play in the ocean's depths practical for the first time," and Mel was exposed to the glory of diving.

After the war, Mel moved to California, bought a chicken ranch, and out of a farm shed, ran a small dive shop where he gave diving lessons free of charge to the patrons who bought equipment. He stayed there for three years developing the SCUBA craft, modifying equipment, or making his own if needed. Realizing that diving was his utmost passion, he decided to sell the ranch and devote his time solely to underwater exploration. As luck would have it, the buyer had a beautiful daughter, Dolores, or Deo. Mel offered to teach her to dive, and it wasn't long before their mutual love of the water and adventure turned into a deep love for one another. They married and opened Mel's Aqua Shop in Redondo Beach. "They worked tirelessly, making some of the first wet suits and building their own spear guns." The shop wasn't lucrative enough to support their diving hobbies completely so they made extra money producing underwater movies and trapping and selling lobster.

After venturing into the realm of treasure hunting, scavenging the golden riverbeds of California, Mel's vision quickly expanded to include ship wrecks in the wide-open unfathomable oceans. Always at his side, wherever Mel dove, Deo dove with him. She was one of the first female divers and actively tried to encourage woman to take on the sport. On August 2, 1959, at the age of 23, she broke the women's record for longest time spent underwater, remaining below the surface for 55 hours, 37 minutes, and 11 seconds in an empty porpoise tank, where she ate bananas, drank soup and juice, and read books and magazines to pass the time. Mel and their three kids cheered her on all the while. Although they enjoyed their work at the dive shop, the couple decided to let it go in order to take on treasure hunting and historic salvaging full time. They left California for Florida bringing with them a team of diving experts and engineers. They called themselves "Universal Salvors," and later on, "Treasure Salvors." This was the true beginning of Mel's life's work.

"While working a wreck called the 'Colored Beach Site,' [the supposed site of a sunken treasure fleet from 1715], Mel and Universal Salvors uncovered a carpet of gold coins on the seabed, thousands of gold coins." With this discovery came a sort of "gold rush" to the area. Divers came from everywhere to search for gold, eventually leading to the creation of diving and salvage laws in Florida still in effect today. Having had enough of the 1715 fleet, Mel and troupe moved to the Florida Keys, the "site of many more shipwrecks, to look for the even more lucrative lost galleons of the 1622 treasure fleet that had reportedly sunk in Keys waters." It took three years before the crew made their first discovery, a Spanish anchor and an 8' long gold chain, and two years after for Mel's son to find "a silver bar inscribed with numbers that matched the Spanish manifest of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha." This proved they were on the right track, and the treasure they had found thus far did indeed come from the 1622 fleet. There were many other finds, large and small, raising everyone's spirits and excitement. But this was only the calm before the storm. In July of 1975, tragedy struck.

During the night, one of the salvage boats, the Northwind, capsized and Mel's son Dirk and his wife Angel were lost. Although grief stricken over the loss of his son, Mel never quit looking for the sunken ship. Had he given up, his son's death would have only been in vain, and Mel knew his son, after devoting his young life to the Atocha, wouldn't want his father to throw it all away. Over the next ten years, small discoveries were made, but the main catch still eluded Mel. Finally, "on July 20, 1985, a magnetometer contact indicated a large target on the seabed." They had found it at last, the mother lode. There was a huge celebration commemorating the find, and even Jimmy Buffet came to perform a few songs at the party for the crew and celebrators.

After tallying up their finds, they had 1,041 silver bars and boxes of coins, 3,000 to a box, and 65 pounds of gold in the form of 77 bars, 7 disks, and 7 chains. They continued on and found numerous gold and silver artifacts as well as almost 3,000 Colombian emeralds. Today, after many years of excavation, the wreckage is valued between $200 and $400 million.

Mel's dream had been realized at last. He had found the Señora de Atocha, and with it, beside the tangible mounds of treasure and artifacts, Mel had uncovered a piece of history. His team of archeologists began recovering the artifacts, such as rare 17th century, navigational instruments, and piecing together all the gaps in the story. It is an effort still going on today. Realizing his discoveries were too important not to share with the world, he founded the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society. "Today, thanks to Mel's forethought, the Society is an independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to exhibition, education, archaeology, preservation, and research concerning Spanish and Colonial maritime activity in the New World." The museum sees roughly 200, 000 visitors a year.

I came across this story when a friend of mine showed me a silver coin he wears around his neck for luck. He told me that he had received it as a gift from a member of Mel's salvaging crew and that the coin was nearly 400-years-old. The man had received a small portion of the treasure from Mel as payment and had decided to share a piece of his good fortune with my friend. Learning that this summer's issue was to be about "Treasure," I thought this story of treasure hunting would be perfect. I was really surprised, once I began my research, to learn about Mel Fisher's life and personality, and how he persevered even in the face of heartache and loss. It was inspiring, really. Everyday, I get sidetracked by one thing, or I procrastinate on another. Most of you can relate, I'm sure, but then here was this man—and woman — who kept going, doggedly, until they achieved their wildest dreams. So it is a challenge, to me and to you, the reader, to get out there and reach your goal. We all stumble, but I hope after reading this article, that when you fall, you might recollect this story of Mel, dust yourself off that much more quickly, and continue on your way down the path to your dreams and life's aspirations.

All quotes taken from http://www.melfisher.org/melstory.htm
• Mel's Story - Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and Museum in Key West, Florida. May 11, 2005. Retrieved June, 2011 from http://www.melfisher.org/melstory.htm