How does it feel when it rains emeralds? Cris Gober found out, and he won’t ever forget the sight.
When Cris was a graduate student, he was part of an underwater archaeology team excavating a 17th-century Spanish shipwreck in the waters off Key West. One day, while he was on the ocean floor working on the wrecksite, he looked up — and saw hundreds of sparkling green emeralds floating down through the water toward him like raindrops.
The emeralds had been hidden under some sand and sucked up by a tool, similar to a vacuum cleaner, that was used by experts to clear sand and silt from sites on the ocean bottom. The device’s hose released the jewels just under the surface of the water and they began floating back to the depths — so Cris, like everyone else caught in the emerald rainshower, delightedly picked up as many of the “raindrops” as he could.
The year was 1985, and treasure hunter Mel Fisher had just discovered the fabulous riches of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Carrying gold and silver from the New World home to the King of Spain, the Atocha sank about 35 miles southwest of Key West during a 1622 hurricane.
Mel’s team, including his wife Deo and their family, spent 16 years looking for the shipwreck. Their reward came when they uncovered some $450 million worth of gold and silver coins and bars, jewelry, solid gold cups and plates, rare weapons and navigational instruments, and the emeralds that “rained” down on Cris Gober and his fellow divers.
The incredible discovery made by Mel (who died in 1998) and his crew will be remembered and celebrated July 10-13, during Key West’s Mel Fisher Days.
Festival highlights include a dock party with the salvage crew, behind-the-scenes tours of the Fisher family’s private artifact conservation lab, a team treasure hunt and a rollicking street party that recalls Mel’s exuberant spirit.
Despite the historic find, the search for the Atocha isn’t over. According to the ship’s detailed manifest, scores of artifacts and treasures still lie somewhere in the waters off Key West. Mel’s son Kim Fisher leads the continuing search, and each year he and the Fisher team present the festival.
For adventure addicts, the most appealing activity just might be the festivities’ opener. At 11 a.m. Thursday, July 10, dockside at the Schooner Wharf Bar in Key West’s Historic Seaport, current and past Fisher crewmembers will gather to share memories and tales.
But that’s not all — Mel’s famed 100-foot salvage boat J.B. Magruder will be on display for the first time, giving treasure fans a chance to view the venerable vessel that played such an important role in the Atocha discovery (and still serves the team today).
Friday’s events include 45-minute guided VIP tours of the private conservation lab at Mel Fisher’s Treasures at 200 Greene St. — spotlighting the techniques experts use to conserve priceless shipwreck artifacts.
That evening, festival attendees can search for riches of their own during the Amazing Mel Fisher Treasure Hunt. Taking place in Key West’s historic Old Town, the hunt will pit teams against each other as they try to win a “treasure chest” containing $5,000 in silver dollars.
Saturday brings a lively daylong street fair in the 200 block of the island’s renowned Duval Street. Though it’s much larger in scale, the fair recalls the parties Mel used to throw for his crew and their families to raise their spirits during the long search.
Also Saturday, those who wonder how the Fisher family got so fascinated with treasure salvage will have a treat — a chance to watch rarely-seen family videos of Mel’s early expeditions, during a special screening at Tropic Cinema.
Throughout the festival — and throughout the year — interested visitors can tour the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum at 200 Greene St. to discover priceless objects from the Atocha and other shipwrecks. And if they look carefully, they might even spot some emeralds that glisten like raindrops.