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 The 1622 Spanish Treasure Fleet
By Robert "Frogfoot" Weller

 
Mel Fisher the dreamweaver.

 Much of what happened after the 1622 hurricane is now history. In my book The Dreamweaver I have covered quite a bit of the personal drama involved in the subsequent location, salvage, tragedy and frustration as first the Santa Margarita was located and salvaged, then when the final mother lode of Atocha was located and salvaged.
  A thumbnail sketch of the years 1971-1985 is probably in order. When Gaspar de Vargas salvaged the Rosario off loggerhead Key in the Dry Tortugas he left an entire galleon full of artifacts, and at least one silver bar behind. The ballast pile of the Rosario lies in ten feet of water and on the western side of the reef that extends to the west of Loggerhead Key. The patache that sank in the same hurricane and whose survivors wound up on Loggerhead Key along with the Rosario survivors, is also close by. Its ballast pile lies only a few hundred feet from the boat dock at Loggerhead Key. You can visually locate it easily as you come up to the dock. The patache also has a ship-full of artifacts on board. Nothing was salvaged because a second hurricane, more savage than the first, swept across this area thirty days after the hurricane that sank the ships. It caused some huge waves that clouded up the water and almost sank the two de Vargas' salvage vessels that had anchored in behind Loggerhead Key. The survivors watched the water rise up and almost cover the island that was sixteen feet above sea level.
    The Park Service rangers now view these wrecks as their own personal and private stomping grounds, chasing everyone away that even looks like they want to investigate the sites. Syd Jones, Treasure Salvors, tried taking a group to look the sites over several years ago and had a frustrating experience. I am sure the rangers have relieved all artifacts that are apparent, but there still remains thousands of artifacts to be recovered if the sites are ever opened up to the public.
 
The locating of the Atocha was another matter. As salvagers you have to understand it is a LARGE ocean, and without landmarks to take bearings on and run compass courses to "mag" for "hits" the obstacles are formidable. It is true that today, with Global Positioning Systems (GPS), it is a much easier job than it was 37 years ago. Still, to do the job properly requires a computer-controlled boat to cover the gridded area so far from meaningful landmarks.
 This is an expensive proposition, but not impossible. Mel Fisher had none of this. He set up small ranging towers and put his people on these with a theodolite (surveyor's transit) and a radio to stay in contact with the mag boat as it ran its courses. By keeping the boat on course they managed to cover each area to some degree of accuracy. Still, they missed the Atocha "mother lode", even though they covered this particular area in 1973.


King Philip III of Spain.

 

    When the Atocha anchor was found in 1971 they were also able to locate a few silver coins, lead musket balls, and a gold chain in the immediate vicinity. It was everyone's opinion that they were on the track of the Atocha as it came ashore initially. It took them fourteen years to finally figure out that was a bounce spot of the top decks that had been separated by the "second" hurricane in September 1622.


Atocha 8 reale coin dated 1620.

   From 1971 to 1984 the Fisher team concentrated on this area, and they recovered some fabulous artifacts. The "Bank of Spain", a sandy area 22 feet deep, and within 200 yards of the anchor location, gave up what was probably a shipping crate of coins. Initially over 2,000 silver coins were recovered, the rest had been spread over the area by other storms. Coins were picked up over a period of months; when spirits were low and everyone needed a boost, someone would take his salvage boat to the Bank of Spain and make a "withdrawal." Gold bars, a gold cup, jewelry, gold chains, silver ewers, candelabra, muskets, rapiers, and typical 1622 passengers' baggage came off the bottom.
  John Brandon's crew recovered probably the most significant artifact to ever be recovered from a Spanish galleon, the gold belt with 28 sections, each with a precious stone or pearl. This was found a section at a time, up on the "Gorgonia Flats" in eighteen feet of water as the bottom steps up to "The Quicksands." Then nine bronze cannon were recovered to the east of the Bank of Spain, in forty feet of water. This was an indication that the ship was breaking up before it reached the anchor location, but this did not register with the Fisher team. The feeling remained that the Atocha lay in shallow water, "up in the Quicksands." The accounts of Vargas putting the Atocha in 54 feet of water (ten brazas) was weighed against the second hurricane carrying the "entire" Atocha westward into the Quicksands. The Quicksands won out because, after all, the team kept recovering some great artifacts from this area, almost on a daily basis. None of the salvage crews wanted to miss out on finding its share.

 

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References

"Salvaging Spanish Sunken Treasure,"  by Robert "Frogfoot" Weller

For additional information see:  "Galleon Hunt,"  "Shipwrecks Near Wabasso Beach,"  "Sunken Treasure On Florida Reefs,"  "Famous Shipwrecks of the Florida Keys."  by Robert "Frogfoot" Weller


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Explorers Cookbook and Travel Guide - Pirates Edition . The title of this book is self explanatory - traveling in the footsteps of the early explorers of the Caribbean. She writes about fabulous destinations, with an added bonus of including fascinating folklore and the exciting entertaining foods that have derived from the past. Included are recipes and travel tips. This is book is growing in popularity and can be found not only in the United States, but also in airports, and retail shops throughout the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, St Marrten and the Virgin Islands.