Mel Fisher shipwreck salvager Key West
  • Legendary shipwreck salvager Mel Fisher displays treasures and artifacts from his undersea discoveries. Mel's legacy is celebrated each year during Key West's Mel Fisher Days. (Photo courtesy of Mel Fisher's Treasures)

     

  • By: Carol Shaughnessy
  • July 10, 2019

How does it feel when it rains emeralds? Cris Gober found out, and he won’t ever forget the sight.

When Cris was a graduate student, he was part of an underwater archaeology team excavating a 17th-century Spanish shipwreck in the waters off Key West. One day, while he was on the sea floor working on the wrecksite, he looked up — and saw hundreds of sparkling green emeralds floating down through the water toward him like raindrops.

Each year the Fisher family, headed by Mel’s son Kim (right) and daughter Taffi, present Mel Fisher Days in their father’s honor. (Photo courtesy of Mel Fisher’s Treasures)

The emeralds had been hidden under sand and sucked up by an airlift, similar to an underwater vacuum cleaner, which was used by archaeological divers to clear sand and silt from sites on the ocean bottom.

The device’s hose released the jewels just under the surface of the water and they began floating back to the depths — so Cris, like everyone else caught in the emerald rainshower, delightedly picked up as many of the “raindrops” as he could.

The year was 1985, and shipwreck salvager Mel Fisher and his crew had just discovered the “main pile” of artifacts and treasures from the sunken Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha.

Carrying gold and silver from the New World home to the King of Spain, the Atocha sank about 35 miles southwest of Key West during a 1622 hurricane.

Mel’s team, including his wife Deo and their family, spent 16 years looking for the shipwreck.

Their reward came when they uncovered some $450 million worth of gold and silver coins and bars, jewelry, priceless artifacts, solid gold cups and plates, rare weapons and navigational instruments, and the emeralds that “rained” down on Cris Gober and his fellow divers.

The incredible discovery made by Mel (who died in 1998) and his crew is being remembered and celebrated July 11-13, during Key West’s Mel Fisher Days.

Magruder salvage boat Key West

The venerable Magruder is still used by the Fisher family to seek Atocha artifacts and treasures. (Photo courtesy of Mel Fisher’s Treasures)

Festival highlights include a rollicking dock party with the salvage crew, behind-the-scenes tours of the Fisher family’s private artifact conservation lab, the presentation of the Mel Fisher Lifetime Achievement Award and plenty of opportunities to hear tales of adventure that recall Mel’s exuberant spirit.

Even after the historic 1985 find, the search for the Atocha isn’t over. According to the ship’s detailed manifest, scores of artifacts and treasures still lie somewhere in the waters off Key West. Mel’s son Kim Fisher leads the continuing search, and each year he and the Fisher team present the festival.

On Thursday and Friday, July 11-12, treasure fans can take guided behind-the-scenes tours of the private conservation lab at Mel Fisher’s Treasures at 200 Greene St. — spotlighting the techniques experts use to conserve priceless shipwreck artifacts.

Each tour is limited to just eight people and lasts approximately 60 minutes. Participants should enter via the side door.

Equally enticing is the annual Schooner Wharf Bar Dock Party, set for 3-9 p.m. Saturday at the beloved 202 William St. watering hole in the Key West Historic Seaport.

Mel Fisher Maritime Museum Key West

The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum showcases priceless shipwreck artifacts and treasures. (Photo courtesy of Mel Fisher Maritime Museum)

Current and past Fisher crewmembers will gather to share memories and tales during the high-spirited event, which also features live music, contests and book signings, a live auction — and a silent auction with more than $18,000 worth of items ranging from elegant dinners to authentic shipwreck treasure.

But that’s not all. Mel’s famed salvage boat J.B. Magruder will be docked beside the bar, giving adventure addicts a chance to tour the venerable vessel that played such an important role in the Atocha discovery (and still serves the team today). Tours are offered from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Also at the dock party, the Mel Fisher Lifetime Achievement Award will be presented to Duncan Matthewson III — the shipwreck archaeologist who worked alongside Mel for many years and guided the recovery of artifacts and treasures from the 1985 discovery.

Plus, throughout the festival and throughout the year, people can tour the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum at 200 Greene St. to view priceless objects from the Atocha and other shipwrecks. And those who look carefully might even spot some emeralds that glisten like green raindrops.

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