Michigan husband-and-wife restauranteurs Seth and Audrey Doherty — both experienced Great Lakes divers — spent a week’s vacation in Key West last month hunting for ancient underwater treasure.
Their two days of scuba diving about 35 miles southwest of the Island City weren’t exactly scenic: visibility hovered around 10 feet and there was a vicious south current and no live coral to admire. But they did find a piece of terracotta pottery from perhaps the richest Spanish galleon ever discovered — the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which sank in a 1622 hurricane with hundreds of millions worth of gold, silver and emeralds on board.
The Dohertys were among six intrepid guests who forked over $3,000 each to work alongside professional salvage divers with Mel Fisher’s Treasures of Key West for a week.
“The feeling of it and doing it is thrilling,” Seth Doherty said as he shed his scuba gear on board the salvage vessel J.B. Magruder.
Fisher spent decades hunting for the Atocha, losing a son and daughter-in-law and three others before locating the $450 million mother lode on July 20, 1985. On that day, divers including Fisher’s son Kane found silver bars stacked up like cord wood alongside chests of silver coins and other artifacts. Salvage crews have been mining a 10-mile trail along the sandy bottom ever since, picking up scattered emeralds and gold and silver coins they believe will lead to the ship’s stern castle holding another $100 million in buried treasure.
Fisher died in 1998, but his family has kept his legacy alive, and for the past five years, has opened the wreck site to small groups of guest divers for several weeks each summer. If a diver should be lucky enough to find an emerald or gold bar, he or she doesn’t get to keep it, but would receive a previously found artifact from the Atocha valued at up to $3,000.
Trips usually sell out pretty quick, according to Shawn Cowles, the company’s investor relations manager.
“It’s very exclusive,” he said. “You’re actually diving real time alongside our crew where we believe we can find it.”
But before guest divers ever get into the water, they receive training in salvage techniques.
On board the Magruder last month, crew member Tim Meade showed the six eager divers a very ordinary-looking rock brought up on a previous dive.
“It’s not just a rock,” he told them. “It’s a ballast stone from the Atocha. It’s got a piece of pottery fused to it. When you find a ballast stone, what does that tell us: that the bottom of the ship ripped open ... gold bars, silver coins.”
Meade advised them to look for solution holes — depressions in the limestone bottom where the most valuable pieces of treasure typically are found.
“There’s no limit to what you can find,” he said.
While the divers suited up, captain Andy Matroci revved the Magruder’s noisy twin diesel engines whose propellers are fitted with large tubes dubbed “mailboxes.” The mailboxes deflect propeller wash downward through 12 feet of sand to reveal limestone bedrock and, hopefully, treasure.
Matroci, who was one of the first divers to locate the mother lode 29 years ago, says any recovered artifact — not just gold or silver — is important.
“You’ve just found a piece of history,” he said.
When the trench was clear, salvage and guest divers wearing full scuba gear and knee pads plunged into the water and began crawling around in the sandy pit. A couple were equipped with underwater metal detectors; the rest, just their hands and small mesh collection bags.
Visibility was terrible, so divers had to peer closely through clouds of sand and reams of shells, hoping to find objects that were either perfectly round or perfectly square — signs they were man made.
Guest diver Mike McCarley of Wilmington, North Carolina, found some beautiful shells and also a pottery shard.
McCarley, who runs a commercial diving company in his home state, said diving on the Atocha was a “bucket list thing, something I gotta do. Not as excited as if I found a silver coin, but I didn’t get shut out,” he added.
When all the divers were back on board, Matroci directed the crew to adjust the mooring lines holding the Magruder on station and then deployed the mailboxes to dig an adjacent trench.
Meade, who has found a 10-carat emerald appraised at $10 million along with other artifacts from the Atocha, is a strong believer in Mel Fisher’s oft-repeated motto: “Today’s the day.”
“One of these days,” he told the guest divers, “there’s gonna be a hole and there’s gonna be handfuls of gold chains and gold bars. We could find that hole today, or the next day, or next year.”
Even though she didn’t find any bling, Audrey Doherty said she enjoyed the experience.
“These guys are pretty cool,” she said. “They don’t sugarcoat it. I feel like I got to experience what these guys really do.”
If you go
The final Atocha Dive Adventure of the 2014 season is this week. To reserve a spot for next summer, call 305-294-5441 or visit www.melfisher.com and click on “dive the Atocha.”