We're hunting the ghost of a wreck. Not just any wreck, but the remains of a Spanish galleon, the sort that spawns legends and feuds. We're searching for signs of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, lost, with 290 souls and a belly full of New World wealth, in the treacherous waters between Key West and Cuba during the hurricane season of 1622.
You can't be on Key West long without hearing about the ill-fated Atocha and its storied loot. And you certainly can't avoid tales of the late Mel Fisher, the rum-drinking, ass-patting, spectacularly self-promoting "Most Famous Treasure Hunter" who uncovered the wreck in 1985 after a $23 million search.
Beginning in the late 1960's, Fisher convinced a lot of people to hang a lot of money on the thin prospect of salvaging the Atocha's riches. Inevitably, his rapacious enthusiasm and well-spun B.S. attracted controversy; during his 16-year hunt Fisher tangled fiercely with the Florida government, environmentalists, and rival treasure hunters. But Fisher's fellow Conchs--as native Key Westers will have themselves called--revered him as a folk hero, whose quixotic quest resembled plenty of tired dreams wafting above the heads of regulars at Schooner's and the Green Parrot Bar.
When Fisher finally uncovered the wreck, his joy reverberated through the entire community. Divers pulled up more than $400 million in gold, silver, and gems, and new bits and pieces occasionally surface even 14 years later. According to the salvage company, twice the recovered amount may still be down there, buried so deep at the murky bottom that even Fisher's persistent hands couldn't reach it.
When Fisher died of cancer last December, his family and partners took over salvage rights to the Atocha and control of the spot where Fisher found the mother lode, some 40 miles from Key West. Until recently the site was off-limits to the public. But this summer, Fisher's successors--billing themselves as Atocha Dive Expeditions--began offering full-day, $250 excursions to recreational divers.
As a maritime legend, the Atocha has few rivals; as a diving destination, unfortunately, it leaves too much to the imagination. The ship's timbers disintegrated long ago, so this is not a wreck dive, despite what you might expect from the hype. Barring some dramatic new discovery, everything of interest has been brought up already, so the site is lacking in historical details. Nor is this a treasure dive: in the unlikely event you were to unearth something valuable yourself, you couldn't take it home anyway. What the trip provides instead is a hands-on lesson in marine archaeology. A recorded narrative explains--in great detail--just how Fisher's team went about locating and then recovering the wreck. fifty feet underwater, I have my eyes pinned on Carl, my dive partner, so I don't notice the five-foot barracuda until it's nearly on top of us. Panicked, I poke at Carl's neoprened shoulder and belch a fury of bubbles through my respirator. Carl's been down here before; he just grins and flashes me the "okay" sign. (Later, I will learn that the friendly beast has a name: Ralph.)
A few yards on, groping through the murk in 15-foot visibility, we come upon the only real feature on the flat, sandy bottom. It's the Atocha's ballast pile, nearly 100 tons of rocks that spilled from the ship's punctured hull as it sank. Sprinkled among them are "silver" bars (cement, actually) and ersatz treasure chests planted by the dive company. Like the faded chalk outline of a movie star's corpse, the site is more about what was once here than what you see now--an experience I find underwhelming.
There is one brief moment of drama: When Carl and I surface, we see the crew gathered around a crumbled piece of wood in a bucket. One of the guides has recovered what appears to be part of a hull timber from the Atocha, preserved for centuries under the sand. The discovery thrills my fellow diver Stephanie Reynolds, who has come here from Austin with her husband, Bill. Years ago, Stephanie was captivated by the Atocha story--in Kansas, where she saw a traveling exhibition of the ship's treasure. I ask how she enjoyed the dive. "I'm excited just to be here," she raves. "It's like the Tower of London--you go to see it because history happened there." (Yeah, I want to say, plus there's that neat tower to look at . . .)
Fortunately, the expedition has a fabulous second act. After a quick lunch on board, the captain motors us toward Cosgrove Light, which marks the shallow coral bed that scuttled the Atocha. It is a beautiful, if murderous, reef. I spend 40 sublime minutes floating through underwater gardens and peeking into coral caves; visibility is a crystalline 80 feet. I poke Carl again, and stare bug-eyed at him from behind my respirator. He looks at me, patiently confused.
They really should work out a scuba signal for "exceptional beauty."
Atocha Dive Expeditions 631 Greene St., Key West, Fla.; 305/797-3131, fax 305/296-4330; KeyWestQue@aol.com. Trips accommodating up to 14 people leave daily at 9 a.m. and return at 5 p.m., year-round, weather permitting. The $250 fee includes scuba equipment, lunch, and two guided dives. Participants must be certified for open-water dives.