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The Treasure of the Nuestra Se�ora de Atocha
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The Treasure of the Nuestra Se�ora de Atocha

(Our Lady of Atocha) was the most famous of a fleet of Spanish ships that sunk in 1622 off the Florida Keys while carrying copper, silver, gold, tobacco, and indigo from Spanish ports at Cartagena, Colombia, Porto Bello in New Granada and Havana bound for Spain. The ship was named for the parish of Atocha in Madrid, Spain.

The Marquesas Keys as seen from space. Image courtesy of NASA.

Above: The Marquesas Keys as seen from space. Image courtesy of NASA.

On September 4, 1622, the Atocha was driven by a severe hurricane onto the coral reefs near the Marquesas Cays, about twenty miles west of Key West. With her hull savagely ripped open, the vessel quickly sank, drowning every one aboard except for five survivors (three sailors and two slaves). The Atocha was heavy-laden with gold, silver and precious gems, bound for the treasuries of Spain

Impact of the Loss

After the surviving ships brought the news of the disaster back to Havana Spanish authorities dispatched another five ships to salvage the Atocha and the Santa Margarita, which had run aground near where the Atocha sank. The Atocha had sunk in approximately 50 feet of water, making it difficult for divers to retrieve any of the cargo or guns from the ship. A second hurricane in October of that year made attempts at salvage even more difficult by burying or scattering the wreckage of the ship still further.

The loss of the 1622 fleet had an immediate impact on Spain, forcing it to borrow more to finance its role in the Thirty Years' War and to sell several galleons to raise funds. While their efforts over the next ten years to salvage the Santa Margarita were successful, the Spanish never relocated the Atocha.

Modern Recovery and Legal Battle

The cargo of the Atocha, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars by today's standards, lay lost beneath the sea for nearly 360 years. American treasure hunter Mel Fisher and a team of sub-contractors, funded by investors and others in a joint venture, searched the sea bed for the Atocha for over 20 years. The team discovered the wreck and associated silver, gold and emeralds in 1985. Fisher had earlier recovered the wrecked cargo of the Santa Margarita in 1980.

After the discovery the United States government claimed title to the wreck, and the State of Florida seized many of the items Fisher had retrieved from his earliest salvage expeditions. After eight years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favour of Fisher.

The mother load was finally discovered on July 20th 1985. It was Mel's son, Kane, that radioed the news to Treasure Salvors head quarters on the Florida coast, from the salvage boat Dauntless.

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