Legends of Diving Articles

 

Mel Fisher
Treasure Hunter and First
California Dive Shop Owner

Every diver has heard the famous cry “Today’s the day!” This was the battle cry of the most famous treasure hunter in diving. “We’ve found the

Mother Lode!” These slogans became a part of every diver’s vocabulary. This can be attributed largely to one man…Mel Fisher, who devoted his life to the quest for gold, riches, and sunken Spanish Ships. He lived every diver’s dream.

It is believed that Mel Fisher, who was born in Hobart, Indiana in 1922, read Treasure Island as a boy and it always served as inspiration while searching for lost treasure. While still young, he experimented with breathing underwater with a bicycle pump, a bucket and some hose.


He later attended Alabama University to study engineering. His studies were interrupted when he joined the Army in WWII. He was stationed in France and Germany. His job was to repair everything the US bombed during the war. During this time he found out about a breathing apparatus that was being used by the military for warfare. It was at this time a Navy officer coined the verbiage “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus” (SCUBA).

In the late 1940’s Mel had moved to California where, by 1950, he had started a chicken ranch. He soon, however, opened the State’s first dive shop in one of the farm sheds. It was very small but was the only place for people to get equipment at that time. Mel offered free dive lessons to anyone who bought equipment from him. Determined to develop the sport, he modified existing dive and snorkel gear to make it easier to use. When necessary, he did what all divers were doing at this time…inventing their own equipment as the need arose.

Mel went on to make some of the first underwater movies. These films revealed to the public what the underwater world had in store for them

and encouraged them to dive. In 1953 Mel decided to sell the ranch and concentrate on the dive business. He was negotiating to buy a piece of property and noticed the owner’s beautiful daughter, Delores, known as Deo. He offered to teach her to dive, which led quickly to friendship, then courtship, and finally to marriage. They honeymooned in the Florida Keys, combining business with pleasure, as Mel made one of his best movies there, “The Other End of the Line.”


With the ranch sold, the newlyweds moved to Redondo Beach and opened Mel’s Aqua Shop. They built their own spear guns and made their own wetsuits. Mel’s father,

Earl, was in charge of making lead weights, filling tanks, and repairing equipment. His mother, Grace, ran the shop and they both learned to dive. As Mel’s dive buddy and business partner, Deo became one of the first women to have a dive career. On August 2, 1959, Deo, just 23 years old, descended into a porpoise tank for 55 hours 37 minutes to help promote the dive business. The news exposure gave them the publicity they wanted. Mel was selling the public on searching for gold in the riverbeds. With SCUBA you could get there much easier.

The dive shop is still open today at that same site, which makes it the oldest dive shop in the world. It is now called Sea D Sea. Dive n Surf is the oldest dive shop owned by one family continuously. Both shops are just blocks away from each other in Redondo Beach, California.


In 1964 Mel and Deo met up with Kip Wagner, a local treasure hunter, in Sebastian, Florida. He had found silver coins that washed up on the beach which started him on a quest for treasure. Mel and Deo made a decision to follow this dream and move to Florida. Mel brought experienced divers and

engineers from California, calling them Universal Salvors. Later the name was changed to Treasure Salvors.

While working a treasure site called Colored Beach Site, they found thousands of coins. It was from this find that a law was written in Florida that is still in effect today. Contracts were signed with the State that the state would receive 25% of whatever they found.

By 1968 they had recovered a lot from the 1733 Spanish fleet. Mel decided to move to the Florida Keys in search of the 1622 Galleons. It

was at a party that someone pulled out Potters Treasure Guide in which the Nuestra Senora de Atocha was described as the richest shipwreck ever lost.

The search was on! It was not possible to get an exact location of the wreck, but they did have one clue…the ship went down in deep water. Mel and Deo met Eugene Lyon who was a member of their church. He not only knew Spanish but could read the scrawl, as well. He discovered that in 1622 there were attempts to salvage the 1622 fleet near the Cayos Del Marques, the modern day Marquesas, forty miles west of Key West. Mel offered Eugene 10,000 dollars and a share in the treasure for his support.

By 1971 Mel had been searching all around the Marquesas. It was not until two years later his son Kane found a silver bar inscribed with the numbers that matched the Manifest of the Atocha. This was the proof they

needed. During the next two years there were more finds…large and small. Mel then hired archaeologist Duncan Mathewson to help him find the Atocha. He realized that he needed an archeologist in command for excavation efforts.

Mel’s oldest son, Dirk, found five bronze cannons from the Atocha on July 13, 1975. Everyone thought they were close at that point. Just a week later, however, tragedy struck when the salvage boat Northwind capsized in the night. Dirk, his young

wife Angel, and diver, Rick Gage, were lost. By the time the Atocha would be discovered, four lives would be lost. A high price would be paid indeed.

Over the next ten years thousands of gold coins and jewelry would be found. In 1980, a large stern section of one of the 1622 Galleons, the Santa Margarita, was discovered as well. They still kept searching, but treasure hunting is a very costly business. Even in the 1970’s, it would run as high as a thousand dollars a day to fund the expedition.

During this period, the State of Florida declared that the Atocha and the artifacts that Mel found belonged to the state. In addition, state agents

would be required on any dive boats searching for treasure. The treasure hunters would have to absorb that cost as well. At one time Mel paid for six state agents to be on the Atocha site and taught them how to dive, as well. His attorney Paul Horan appealed this decision to the Supreme Court and, after 7 years and 141 hearings, Mel won when the decision was reversed. It cost him

$4 million in legal fees. The US Supreme Court would grant Mel Fisher complete ownership of the Atocha and its treasures.

On Memorial Day weekend in 1985, one of Mel’s crews found 13 gold bars, 4 pieces of gold jewelry with emeralds, a gold chain, and numerous coins. After 20 years of searching, 20 million dollars invested in the hunt, and never giving up hope, Mel’s lifelong dream was finally within reach… in 55 feet of water, 35 miles southwest of Key West.

would be required on any dive boats searching for treasure. The treasure hunters would have to absorb that cost as well. At one time Mel paid for six state agents to be on the Atocha site and taught them how to dive, as well. His attorney Paul Horan appealed this decision to the Supreme Court and, after 7 years and 141 hearings, Mel won when the decision was reversed. It cost him $4 million in legal fees. The US Supreme Court would grant Mel Fisher complete ownership of the Atocha and it’s treasures.

On Memorial Day weekend in 1985, one of Mel’s crews found 13 gold bars, 4 pieces of gold jewelry with emeralds, a gold chain, and numerous coins. After 20 years of searching, 20 million dollars invested in the hunt, and never giving up hope, Mel’s lifelong dream was finally within reach… in 55 feet of water, 35 miles southwest of Key West.

“Today’s the day!” July 20, 1985 the crew found a reef of silver bars. One of the divers, Andy Matroci, yelled “It’s the Motherlode!” Kane Fisher radioed back to Key West and said “Put away the charts--we found the pile! Where’s Dad?” He was out buying a new pair of fins. The local radio station broadcast “If anyone sees Mel Fisher, tell him he found the big

pile.!” Mel first heard about the discovery from well wishers in the street. Kane later told him “Silver bars are stacked like cordwood. Coins are everywhere!”

They found 1,041 silver bars and boxes of coins (3,000 per box.) Jimmy Buffet sat on a pile of silver bars and played for the crew. Two years after the Motherlode was found its value was placed at 400 million dollars.

By 1982 Mel formed the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society to protect the artifacts and stories long after his quest would be over. It is one of the richest non-profit organizations of artifacts and treasures in the

western hemisphere. The Key West Museum contains the single richest collection of 17th century maritime antiques and has become a study of early European maritime history in the New World.

Just as important as the Spanish Galleons, he found an English Merchant slaver ship, the Henrietta Marie. It was one of the few slave shipwrecks ever discovered. They found it while searching for the Atocha, calling that dive site the English Wreck. Today it is believed to be the world’s largest source of tangible objects from the early years of the slave trade. These items are in the museum in Key West, along with the ship’s bell. Dr. Jose Jones, an African American marine biologist, made a historic dive there and placed a plaque on the ship for all black divers. This was filmed for the Discovery Channel. He later commented that it gave him goose bumps…he felt his heritage calling.

Mel and Deo were a true team, the movie based on Mel’s life “Dreams of Gold” with Cliff Robertson and Loretta Swit captures the sprit of the Fisher’s lives. “Except the part where they show me cooking,” laughs Deo Fisher. “Everyone who knows me knows I don’t cook!” She was at Mel’s side through out their life together, she had not time for household duties. Mel passed away in 1998 and Deo died in 2009.

The Fisher family, the grandchildren and children now run the Mel Fisher Heritage Society & Museum.

Kane Fisher, Deo and Mel’s son, is in charge of Key West Operations.

Mel Fisher and Deo

Our many thanks to the Mel Fisher Heritage Society and
Museum, 200 Greene Street, Key West, Florida

Our thanks to another treasure hunter, Bob Meistrell,
of the Dive n Surf , Redondo Beach, California.

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12701 South Dixie
Bowling Green OH, 43402
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