For more than two decades, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum has displayed the treasures found by a local explorer. Fisher's great find while based in Key West was a seventeenth-century Spanish galleon named the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Gold and silver, valued in the millions, were brought to the surface.
Much of the loot is on display at the Maritime Museum in Key West, one of the many attractions in the city's Old Town. It took Fisher and his team sixteen years to find the shipwreck, which yielded $400 million worth of treasure. The Key West maritime museum was established to study and share the excavation, research, and preservation of artifacts relating to New World maritime history. The collection includes the coins from the Atocha, as well as silver bars, jewels such as dazzling emeralds, and other artifacts discovered when the team was looking for the Spanish ship that sank about 45 miles off the coast of Key West.
The Mel Fisher Museum also contains items recovered from the sister ship to the Atocha, named the Santa Margarita. At this maritime museum in Key West, visitors can hold a gold bar found in one of the wrecks, a true treasure. Also on display are artifacts from the English merchant slave vessel Henrietta Marie, which sank in 1700 near the Marquesas Keys and was salvaged by Fisher's crew. In addition, a second-floor gallery at the Key West Maritime Museum hosts a new exhibition each year.
Along with the interesting exhibits, the museum features a large conservation laboratory, where artifacts are identified and preserved. A variety of educational programs, appropriate for children and adults, focus on topics such as preservation, shipwrecks, and maritime heritage. Visitors who are interested in the history of the Florida Keys will find this attraction especially interesting.
Visitors can take a piece of the museum home with them after making a purchase at Trade Goods, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum Gift Shop. Some of the options include DVDs detailing the search for the Atocha, games, educational toys, T-shirts, home decor, and books. Much of the jewelry replicates the treasures found beneath the surface among the sunken ships.
The Key West maritime museum is open daily, including on weekends and holidays. It's easy to find downtown, right at the corner of Greene and Whitehead, a short walk from the cruise ship docks. Admission discounts are available for children, seniors, and groups.
Those who find the Mel Fisher Museum fascinating likely will enjoy a stop at another one of the local museums, the Shipwreck Historeum, where costumed guides bring the history of Key West in its heyday back to life.
Experienced divers also can dip below the waters of the Keys for a close-up look at a variety of shipwrecks. Some of these have been converted into reefs, including the USS Spiegel Grove, an old Navy ship sunk in the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The Mel Fisher Museum offers a special package where divers have unparalleled access, including collaborating with professionals working below the surface among the wreckage of the Atocha. Even though many treasures have been salvaged, there's still much to discover. The sterncastle and many gold bars and coins listed on the ship manifest have yet to be found. The weeklong experience includes tours that go behind the scenes of the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, several days' worth of dives, a sunset sail, and gatherings with the explorers' family.
Image: Dan Berkes