In this trendy resort town that worships fast-buck heroes, be they smugglers or Hemingways, Mel Fisher is loved for the Big Score.
And he's only just begun to count the take: 1,028 silver bars, 7,175 ounces of gold, bedazzling emeralds, fat treasure chests bursting with 255,000 coins, gleaming gold bars -- $400 million in loot off one Spanish ghost galleon, the richest treasure ship of all time.
Fisher went hunting the legendary Nuestra Sen ora de Atocha 16 years back. Ten days ago he found her. "I figured it might take me five or six weeks, not 16 years," laughed the 6-foot-5 ex-chicken farmer, now a potbellied Indiana Jones of the Deep.
Just days after his divers had found the 1622 treasure ship that went down in a killer hurricane, Fisher wandered about his favorite pub as if in a daze, a $10,000 gold doubloon about his neck, rum and Coke in hand -- a 62-year-old man chasing every little boy's dream.
At Two Friends, his hangout bar, employes and locals crowded the piano belting, "We're in the Money."
"HOW 'BOUT IT!" they shouted as John Brandon, 31, one of Fisher's skippers, made good on a promise to cut his shoulder-length locks if they hit the mother lode. Snip, snip. As if Atocha wasn't enough, Brandon found another galleon 100 miles north off Fort Pierce, Fla., the same day, hauling in another $300,000 in plunder for Fisher's Treasure Salvors Inc.
Fisher gets only 5 percent of the Atocha loot, having leveraged the dream to make it happen. That still comes to a cool $20 million. "I won't have to worry," he says. Not only that: he's made employes of Treasure Salvors -- "little people" like Brandon who kept the faith for years -- and 700 Atocha investors rich, rich, rich. Brandon, a 16-year employe, stands to cart off a cool million.
All week long, investors were streaming into town to join the party, pinching each other, grinning ear to ear. Among the first stops was Fisher's Treasure Exhibit, an abandoned warehouse, where armed rent-a-cops kept an eye on wild-eyed tourists streaming past gold bars, emerald-encrusted necklaces and stacks of fresh silver bars, blackened and smelling like rotten eggs from oxidation.
"How much do I get?" asked Dorothea Moffatt, a Boston secretary who charged her limited partnership on her MasterCard in April.
"If all $400 million is brought up, yours comes to $94,000," said gift shop clerk Sherri Culpepper, who aims to swap her trailer for a real house.
"Unbelievable!" gasped Moffatt, leaning for support against a glass case full of gleaming gold bars.
Said housewife Lorena Butler, another Boston investor: "I'd call it Christmas in July."
Others begged someone, anyone, to let them buy into future quests. Employes get a percentage of the Atocha based on seniority, but all payments are made in treasure, not cash. A division committee assigns value to the items, and a computer randomly matches investors with booty equal to their shares.
The highest roller is a New York lawyer Fisher identified as Carl Paffendorf, whose $2.3 million share buys him 10 percent -- possibly $40 million. "He'll wind up with more than me," shrugs Fisher. "But all I want is to be able to do this until I die."
Down at the docks, Zoltan Deszi, 67, a dump truck owner from Taylor, Mich., danced in the rain as a boat crew offloaded silver plates and pitchers. His ship had come in.
Fisher had pitched him for help to meet his payroll the day before Atocha was found. Deszi wired him about $20,000 for a piece of the action.
"I never been on a plane in my life," he says, waving his arms. "This time I flew."
"Calm down," urged his daughter. "You'll have a heart attack." But he was out of control, laughing, shaking hands, snapping photos of his loot. "It's a fairy tale," he squealed, "a dream come true."
Others merely delighted in an all-American crap shoot. "You ever been to Vegas?" said Doug Douglas, a fortyish Chattanooga, Tenn., builder with dark curly hair and a stay-press grin.
"Mel came to me. He said, 'We've lost the trail. It might be tomorrow, six weeks or two years. You want to go with me or not? Even if you don't, I still love you.' I said, 'Mel, let's hang that belly over the table and let 'em roll.' "
"I've jumped out of planes," he says, "shot at people in Vietnam , but this is the ultimate high."
"Everyone's going to make out like a bandit," said Don Kincaid, underwater photographer and vice president of the company. "There's enough to satisfy everyone's greed."
Even rival treasure hunters saluted.
"Of course we're envious," said Jack Haskins of Islamorada, Fla., who competed for the Atocha and lost. "Boy, it should happen to me! Fantastic! It's nothing but wonderful for the business when someone succeeds."
Fisher's main problem now is how to liquidate so much rare gold and silver without glutting the market. American Express is negotiating to sell some of the 250,000 pieces of eight by mail for $1,000 a coin.
And Fisher wonders who might want some of the 400 silver bars hauled up so far. Melt-down value alone (70 pounds at $6 an ounce) comes to about $7,000 apiece, but he puts a price of $40,000 to $100,000 each on them as antiques. Neiman-Marcus doorstops for rich Texans?
Then there's Hollywood to consider. First off, he's scheduled for "Good Morning America" and the "CBS Morning News." Tuesday night is Carson. And virtually every major studio or independent producer is salivating over rights.
Among those salivating is bespectacled Los Angeles producer Max Keller, in jeans, a blue Hawaiian shirt and gray Nikes. He boasts five scripts and a deal at CBS, if he can close. So who would play Mel?
"Given my choice? Paul Newman. He's the definitive actor of all time and Mel Fisher is the contemporary folk hero of all time."
Mel Fisher, Rocky of the Deep? "Yeah," he concedes, "I guess I'm a hero for a lot of people. I beat the state. I beat the federal government. I hung in there. I found the treasure."
Forty-one miles at sea, where the tropical sun beats down and salt spray stings the eyes, Fisher's salvage ship Dauntless rolls on gentle swells as divers haul up loot daily now: intact treasure chests full of pieces of eight, gleaming gold bars bearing the king's tax stamp, silver plates that may have served passengers their last supper.
How rich is the Atocha? Nobody really knows. Besides the manifest records, there is bound to be contraband: gold "boot bars" without tax stamps, perhaps uncut emeralds secreted from Colombia, bejeweled rosaries worn thin from unanswered prayers.
But there is also a treasure trove of history to be sorted through, a puzzle to be reconstructed, an archeological bonanza. Much of the hull appears to be intact beneath its vast ballast of silver, and divers are busy mapping it, even as they haul in the loot.
Mel Fisher doesn't merely want to be rich; he wants to chart history.
"We once said you'd never find an intact treasure chest -- the wood would be rotted away," said press aide Bleth McHaley. But Friday, divers found eight intact chests filled with silver and gold, the metal hinges on one still working after 363 years underwater. And today they found a large silver baptismal font and a seal of Pope Gregory XIII. "Never in our wildest dreams did we expect this," said McHaley.
The Atocha is "a wonderful time capsule," says R. Duncan Mathewson, 49, the bearded marine archeologist busy sifting Fisher's clues to the past.
"It may prove as important as King Tut's tomb or Pompeii."
Up comes a chest of coins blackened from oxidation, the soft wood crumbling to the touch. A deputy archeologist, Jim Sinclair, tags it and bags it, as divers stagger across a deck slippery from silver oxide, lugging the 70-pound bars.
"I call this 'pumping silver,' " laughs a giddy Greg Warham, biceps bulging as he stacks silver bars behind the pilothouse. "This may be the most important thing I do in my life."
The quest for the Atocha is the saga of dreamers and schemers, scholars and skin divers and high rollers, archeologists and map makers -- and the curious charisma of a slow-talking, chain-smoking treasure hunter who always looks like he just woke up.
If paychecks got skipped and employes coudn't pay rent, they'd just bunk aboard Fisher's rusty armada of salvage ships. They were slaving for peanuts anyway. And for the dream.
"We'd throw 'hard times' parties," says a beleaguered McHaley, a company vice president. "The divers would spear lobster or fish and we'd all chip in for a case of beer. Sometimes we had to divvy up cash in the museum register just to eat.
"We doubted our ablity to survive, but Mel always pulled it out of the hat."
Adds Deo, Fisher's wife of 32 years and mother of four: "At times we were close to quitting, but if we'd quit, we'd have been miserable the rest of our lives."
That life began in California when her parents bought his father's chicken farm in the early 1950s. He'd wandered west from a Gary, Ind., childhood, where Robert Louis Stevenson inspired his first dreams of treasure in grade school. At 11, he built a makeshift diving helmet from a five-gallon paint can and a bicycle pump, then graduated to harvesting outboards from Lake Michigan.
He flirted with the 9-to-5 life, but grew bored, studied engineering at Purdue but dropped out, just missed World War II on an army tour, worked construction and wound up in California with 10,000 chickens.
They married, and, as an early devotee of scuba, Fisher pumped profits from chickens and lobster fishing into a dive shop in Redondo Beach, Calif. He taught 65,000 divers joys of the deep, produced a TV skin diving show, hawked his gold dredgers and spent vacations hunting treasure. But there was never enough time.
So in 1963 he set himself a one-year deadline to find gold, sold his diving shop, moved to Florida with five partners and struck a sunken Spanish galleon from the 1715 fleet off Fort Pierce. Overnight, he was big time.
But the Atocha, the richest unsalvaged ship of all time, taunted, teased. "It looked like the biggest," he says. "And we thought it would be in one pile in one spot."
Seas were calm when the Atocha set sail for Spain with 28 other ships early on Sept. 4, 1622. In addition to the tons of gold and silver from the mines and mints of Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, it carried 20,000 pesos for the heirs of Christopher Columbus, 500 bales of tobacco and 263 passengers, including an admiral.
Sailing with the Atocha was another treasure ship, the Santa Margarita, carrying 419 silver ingots, 18,000 silver coins and 34 bars or discs of gold totaling 1,488 ounces.
Also on board were silks, gold and porcelain from the Far East, dropped on the west coast of Mexico by Spain's Pacific Fleet, dispatched overland by mule train and packed onto galleons in Veracruz, Mexico. Smuggling was epidemic. Pirates were a threat. They convoyed for protection.
Back home, royal creditors were hounding Spain's 16-year-old monarch Philip IV. He was desperate for funds to fuel royal extravagance, keep his mighty armada afloat, dispatch troops to the Thirty Years' War, fight off the rambunctious Dutch and stave off economic collapse.
Much of Europe was totally dependent on his shipments of hard currency, say historians. Spain manufactured nothing, paying out 95 percent of its precious metals for food and goods of other European nations whose monetary systems depended on royal gold and silver.
"Each year's Indies treasure came like a cool drink to a fevered man," says historian Eugene Lyon, a 1 percent Fisher partner.
Thirty miles from Havana, the fleet turned north, the seas picked up heavy swells and overladen treasure ships began to founder. Howling winds ripped sails and rigging, masts and rudders splintered, priests gave last rites.
The Atocha broke up first. A giant wave lifted the ship high and smashed it on a reef. "While we watched, she went down and nothing could be seen of the ship," recalled one of five survivors. Within sight, three miles off, the Margarita hit a shoal and sank in shallow water; 550 drowned off both ships.
It was a disaster for Spain. A salvage crew set up shop on Marquesas Key and managed to hoist some gold and silver from the Margarita, but much was left behind. Soon a second hurricane scattered the Atocha across a 10-mile path, and the ship was recorded in archives in Seville, Spain, as being lost forever in the Florida keys off a remote mangrove spit called Cayos del Marques -- a clue that would prove crucial to Mel Fisher 363 years later.
For five years Fisher worked the wrong spot. Like other treasure hunters, he figured the Atocha to be somewhere in the middle or upper keys. Most Spanish records placed the wreck in the "Keys of the Matecumbe," a generic term for the entire Florida Keys. But in 1970 Eugene Lyon, a partner Fisher met over cookies in Bible class, found a new clue.
Researching in Seville's archives for his doctoral thesis, Lyon came upon a salvage account for the Margarita in the "Cayos del Marques."
"It was just a worm-eaten document, there wasn't much paper left on it, but you could make out the word 'Marquesas,' " says Fisher. "That was enough for me."
Rival treasure hunters snickered when Fisher ordered his ragtag fleet 100 miles south. "We worked three shifts a day for two years," he says.
He dug up torpedoes, depth charges, rockets -- the hazards of sifting an old Navy bombing range. He logged 120,000 monotonous miles a year, crisscrossing the ocean, hoisting steel fishing traps, a 50-gallon diesel oil drum, a baby carriage, even a sunken Volkswagen. But no gold.
Then one of his divers surfaced with two lead musket balls and broken pottery from sandy shallows. "This is it!" declared Fisher. "The Big A." He was still dreaming. It was June 1971.
An anchor turned up, then pieces of eight, three shiny gold chains eight feet long -- all in shallow water. Next came gold bars, matchlock muskets -- but no Atocha markings.
Back on dry land, Fisher took blows. Coin dealers accused him of "salting" the wreck with fake Spanish coins to hook investors. He denied it, waving pieces of eight as he sold off shots to his dream, raising more than $1 million before the Securities and Exchange Commission launched an investigation.
He snapped up two Mississippi River tugboats to wrestle the wreck, then had to sell more company stock to fuel the dream. Then came a break: a silver bar plucked from the bottom in May 1973 matched the numbers on the Atocha manifest. Champagne.
An 11-year-old boy, son of a National Geographic photographer, was killed when he fell into a salvage boat propeller. Fisher's leaky galleon museum sank at dockside: he'd had no money to repair worm damage.
The SEC cleared him of wrongdoing, but there were still predators aplenty, among them the State of Florida, wich confiscated his finds. He offered to share, handing over a musket, an emerald and a gold chalice for safekeeping. Bumbling officials promptly lost them. Then a federal judge threw out state claims to treasure beyond the three-mile limit.
But the Atocha still wasn't his. The federal government staked a claim. By then he'd spent $6 million to make $6 million. He flew to Washington with four attorneys. The government had 34.
"On the first day, they said they wanted 25 percent," he says. "On the second day, one half. On the third day, three fourths, and on the last day, they wanted it all. I said, 'See you in court.' "
It took 8 1/2 years and $1.6 million in legal fees before the Supreme Court awarded Fisher his treasure in 1982.
While Fisher was fighting off bureaucrats, his oldest son, Dirk, then 21, found nine bronze cannons worth $20,000 each, each with Atocha armament seals.
Again champagne. Then, in 1975, again tragedy. Dirk's 60-foot salvage vessel, anchored at night atop the wreck site, capsized and sank when a faulty fuel valve caused 3,000 gallons of oil to shift in the hull. Dirk Fisher, his wife Angel and diver Rick Gage were trapped inside and drowned.
That afternoon Mel Fisher sobbed on the Key West docks as the bodies were brought ashore. Then he went back to work. "He'd have wanted me to finish the job," says Fisher.
But that would take another 10 years, as Fisher fought off modern-day pirates who shot at his crew, partners who made off with his gold, sharks of the ocean variety and federal legislation still pending that would give the federal government exclusive rights to all shipwrecks.
"If it passes, it's going to shatter a lot of little kids' and big kids' dreams," he says.
He picked up the Margarita's trail in 1980, three miles east of a sandbar called the Quicksands, and harvested $20 million from that partially salvaged wreck. But no amount of gold from the Margarita could satisfy the desperate need to find the Atocha's mother lode.
Fisher pored over documents, hunting how the ships went down. He had the cannons from the Atocha, but had no idea which way the wind and current had blown the ship.
What he knew was that both ships were intact after the first hurricane, then broke up when the second, more powerful storm hit a month later. Now, he says, he realizes the stern of the Atocha came loose from the reef it struck in the first storm and spilled out silver and ballast rocks as the ship tumbled across the ocean floor.
Cannons fell off next, then the hull likely "righted itself," started "zigzagging," got caught on the Quicksands and spilled out the lighter treasure his divers discovered earlier five miles to the northwest.
But with $9,000 to $12,000 a day in sea hunt expenses at stake, bitter debate raged over which direction to try next. Should he try to satisfy investors with more small returns from the Quicksands or go for broke somewhere else?
Then another Fisher son, Kane, the red-haired, 26-year-old captain of the rusty salvage tug Dauntless, played his own hand. He picked up the trail from the cannons and scored.
Kane Fisher was searching in 53 feet of water near the spot where Dirk drowned, 41 miles west of here off Marquesas Key, 10 years ago to the day.
For years, he had followed a three-mile trail of spikes and miniballs from the cannons to prove his brother's theory that the Atocha lay in deeper water. His divers had snagged a barrel hoop, ballast rocks, ceramic shards and copper ingots, and on July 20 he was back working the same hole when Andy Metroci, 30, hit thousands of silver coins. He was busy digging when Greg Warham, 26, metal detector in hand, gestured frantically.
Visibility was 30 feet as they flippered toward a dark mass jutting from the bottom. Tropical fish darted about what appeared to be a reef encrusted with spiny lobsters, sponges and snagged fishing tackle.
The metal detector went wild. It was a reef composed entirely of silver bars, 47 tons of them stacked like cordwood. The reef stood eyeball high and measured 60 feet long by 30 feet wide. Silver coins spilled from intact treasure chests nearby. The Atocha's mother lode.
"I thought I was dreaming," says Metroci.
Shooting to the surface, his regulator knocked from his mouth in the underwater frenzy, he broke the water with a fist held high in victory.
"Put away the charts!" Kane Fisher shouted over the radio to shore. "We got it!"
Mel Fisher was ambling about town when a local who'd heard the radio told him the news. "Holy ----!" cried the dreamer. "Fantabulous!" Soon he was aboard ship, holding court atop a makeshift throne of 200 silver bars, serenaded by singer Jimmy Buffett crooning "Margaritaville." He'd taken a boat out to provide a one-man victory concert.
It was the first day back on the job since Hurricane Bob set back the Atocha salvage, and divers like Andy Metroci were busy jumping off the stern. With slippery silver sulfide on deck from encrusted bars, visitors skidded about the rolling ship in deck shoes. The crew tried soap and water, scrubbing away, but soon it was Ice Capades again.
"I'm still floating," said Metroci, a five-year veteran with Fisher. He was breathing hard after 90 minutes below.
"I'm still not here on this earth," he said. "It's 20 times better than being a winning quarterback in the Super Bowl. Thousands of times I'd been in the water, and suddenly there it was."
It was like that five years back when he touched his first gold bar at the Margarita wreck -- a three-pound pie-shaped slice of a 16-pound gold disk.
"It was so heavy," he says. "I felt like I could walk on water."
Now he can't sleep. And when he does manage to doze off, he has a recurring dream: he's swimming in a pool and everywhere there is gold, silver, treasure chests. He loves his work, gliding about a world of silence, beauty, history and death.
Metroci gave up $30,000 a year as a hard-hat diver working underwater construction to hunt treasure for Fisher at $102 a week. "I don't make a lot of money," he says. "But I'm happy. How many people can say that when they're driving to the office?"
Soon one of the marine archeologists had him hooked on Spanish history. "You get addicted to it," he says. "It's like a drug." And when he gets paid, it's often in pieces of eight. Last week, he sold a coin for $800 to pay the rent.
Armed with his bonus gold bar for the find, Kane Fisher walked into a local Buick dealer last week, plopped down the gold and drove off in a new Electra. Others tried to fathom the historic proportion of it all.
"These ships were the space shuttles of the 17th century," reflected photographer Kincaid, 39. "I'll never have a chance to walk on the moon, but this is just as good."
For others, it was part Love Boat, part A-Team, with 35 armed guards ready to defend the Atocha from interlopers. What if they actually shoot someone? And what if they bleed? Let the sharks feed. But the silver fishing might have to come to a halt. And what would Ralph, the friendly barracuda, think about blood in the water? "We don't want to shoot anybody," says Fisher.
Still there was talk of pirates and gunfights, of how to defend against James Bond types out to make off with the bars underwater. Or the Cuban navy?
"It's sooo American to guard your treasure," laughed a French photographer. "It's like a western."
Near the ladder, one Chicago investor suited up to inspect his goods. He had $100,000 in the deal, and figured his take at $2 million.
"See ya later," he said, diving overboard. "Gotta go to the bank."
Then it was time to go, as visitors climbed into a 39-foot charter boat, its 620-horsepower Detroit diesels revving through the light chop. Skipper Bill Kieldsen, 40, an 18-carat gold marlin about his neck, a gold Rolex on a wrist, nodded at the spot where the Atocha lay.
"I've trolled right over it for years," he said, shaking his head. "Going for grouper."
So what's the message? What's the moral of the story?
"If you have a dream you believe in," says Deo Fisher, "go for it!"