Located between the Florida Strait and the saltwater Everglades National Park is one of the many eclectic towns that make up the Florida Keys. Islamorada has a population of around 7,000 but is filled with people from across the world who come to visit each year.
What does Islamorada mean? “Purple island” is the answer. Why the early Spanish explorers named this cayo purple has been lost to history. Today, Islamorada is also known as the Village of Islands and actually encompasses six isles, from Plantation Key in the north to Lower Matecumbe Key in the south.
Islamorada is also the Sportfishing Capital of the World and was made famous by President George H.W. Bush, then a frequent visitor and avid fisherman. Whether your angling leans toward bonefish, tarpon or sailfish, you can have it all here. However, if your interest in sea life is more up close and personal, visit Theater of the Sea to swim and interact with dolphins, sea lions, sharks and stingrays.
The Florida Keys are aptly named, because they do offer the keys to a boating paradise unmatched anywhere in our lower 48 states. If you mention those two magic words the Keys to any boater in Florida, immediately what springs to mind are visions of sparkling clear waters, snorkeling, scuba diving, tickling for lobsters, deep-sea fishing, back-bay flats fishing, and simply relaxing and letting go.A coral rock archipelago and accompanying barrier reef that stretch 200 nautical miles from Key Biscayne to the Dry Tortugas comprise this national marine sanctuary. And fortunately for boaters, the Keys are easy to transit in all weather, day or night, because the naturally formed Hawk Channel is well marked for buoy hopping and offers comfortable passage when the seas are raging outside the reef in the Gulf Stream.We'll begin our cruise from the Miami area and head south, keeping the prevailing easterly winds first on our beam and then on our stern as the Keys turn westward.
Key Largo offers a relaxed atmosphere during the winter boating season and, obviously, shares a name with a classic 1948 Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall movie. Strangely enough, there is another Humphrey Bogart connection to Key Largo: The original African Queen, the steam-powered star of the Bogart and Hepburn movie of that same name, has been restored to its original Hollywood splendor and now gives tours around Key Largo. She departs five times daily from Marina Del Mar located at Mile Marker 100 along Highway 1. (By land, locations in the Keys are noted by their mileage from Key West, which is Mile Marker/MM 0). You can pretend to be Mr. Allnut while cruising the Key's canals.But the real star of Key Largo is John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park. The upland park on Largo Sound offers kayaking and canoeing through mangrove swamps and tropical hammocks, and snorkeling and diving at its marine park out on the reef. Pick up a mooring ball at Molasses Reef or the perennial favorite Dry Rocks Reef and put on your mask, snorkel and fins. Dry Rocks is home to the foot bronze Christ of the Deep statue, which sits below the surface.Dock your boat overnight at the Ocean Reef Club and experience the megayacht lifestyle. The marina offers just about every amenity you can imagine: golf course, spa, tennis courts, watersports, and even a cooking school for kids.
Quick: What does Islamorada mean in Spanish? Time's up! Purple island is the answer. Why the early Spanish explorers named this cayo purple has been lost to history. Today, Islamorada is also known as the Village of Islands and actually encompasses five isles, from Plantation Key in the north to Lower Matecumbe Key in the south. Islamorada is also the Sportfishing Capital of the World and was made famous by President George H.W. Bush, then a frequent visitor and avid fisherman. Whether your angling leans toward bonefish, tarpon or sailfish, you can have it all here. However, if your interest in sea life is more up close and personal, visit Theater of the Sea to swim and interact with dolphins, sea lions, sharks and stingrays.As you head down Hawk Channel looking for a marina to berth your yacht, you'll pass Hens & Chickens, a well-marked group of shoals off Plantation Key. Turn up Snake Creek to the Florida Bay side of the Keys to find Plantation Yacht Harbor at MM 87. The marina is well protected from the weather and located within a municipal park that has a swimming pool and tennis courts. It is an excellent base from which to start your exploration of the local restaurants and galleries. On the ocean side, the Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina (formerly Holiday Isle at MM 84) has been undergoing extensive renovations and improvements. The marina offers dockage for vessels up to 100 feet, and, thankfully, you can still enjoy a cocktail at the muchloved Holiday Isle tiki bar.
Next stop is Duck Key or, more specifically these days, Hawks Cay Resort & Marina at Duck Key. The entrance channel is not for the faint-of-heart mariner when the wind and seas are up and they happen to be on your stern. As you surf down the waves, be prepared to make a sharp 90-degree turn to starboard into a quiet canal that leads to the marina.Hawks Cay is a family-friendly resort with lots of activities geared toward kids and teens. There are five swimming pools, plus outings such as nature hikes and scavenger hunts to keep everyone from getting bored. Swim with Atlantic bottlenose dolphins at the resort's Dolphin Connection center, or while the kids are being kept busy, relax at the Calm Waters spa with a signature Key lime-mojito body treatment. For a real mojito that goes down the hatch, have the bartender at on-property Alma's muddle one for you at the end of the day.
Marathon, on Vaca Key, is the most developed city between Key West and Key Largo and is the gateway to the Seven Mile Bridge on the Overseas Highway. Marathon is also a boating center with a number of marinas, a mooring field and a boatyard. Access to a large West Marine store, two supermarkets and even a Home Depot make Marathon a great stopover for repairs and reprovisioning. The Marathon Marina, Boatyard & RV Resort, located in Boot Key Channel between green markers 7 and 9, can handle vessels up to 125 feet and has a beautiful new pool, an oceanfront restaurant and bar and maintenance facilities that include a 75-ton travel lift.Marathon also has many other dining options, from ultracasual Keys Fisheries, where you can still watch the fishermen come in with their stone-crab catch (stone crab season runs from Oct. 15-May 15), to the elegant Butterfly CafÃ© at Tranquility Bay Resort.
Did you ever see the movie PT109, the heroic biopic about a young John F. Kennedy? That was filmed on what is now Little Palm Island Resort & Spa. Still shown on nautical charts as Munson Island, Little Palm Island is located at the entrance to Newfound Harbor off Little Torch Key.The island is home to the most unique and romantic resort in the Keys, with 15 thatched-roof bungalows that are all luxuriously decorated. There is plenty of dockage for yachts both large and small, but make you reservations early if you plan to be there on a Sunday brunch is a true culinary experience. And if you have dinner on the beach at sunset, don't be surprised if a tiny Key deer nuzzles up to you at your table.
Key West is the southernmost point in the U.S. and offers boaters a swashbuckling history of wreckers and pirates, a wealth of wonderfully restored 19th-century architecture, vibrant art galleries and street performances, great food, one-of-a-kind bars and night clubs and the best drag shows around. The center of activity for yachts is Key West Bight. Now a confluence of marinas, restaurants, bars and shops, it was once home to the Key West shrimp fleet. Conch Harbor Marina, the Key West Bight City Marina, A&B Marina and the Galleon Marina are all located in this historic seaport area. Or stay a few miles outside of downtown on Stock Island at the newly redeveloped Stock Island Marina Village or Oceanside Marina.Linger for a couple of days and you may never leave. Yes, Key West is that good. Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Calvin Klein, famed treasure hunter, Mel Fisher, Kelly McGillis and John Audubon have all called Key West home. Life doesn't get any funkier and laid back than living at Mile 0.
The Keys don't end at Key West; they extend another 68 nautical miles westward, past Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas. Loggerhead Key is the last key in the chain and is marked by Dry Tortugas Lighthouse, built in 1858 and almost 160 feet tall. Ever since then, it has guided ships to safe passage between the Straits of Florida and the Gulf of Mexico.But the main attraction of the Dry Tortugas is on the next-to-last key, Garden Key, which is about three nautical miles east of the lighthouse. That is home to Fort Jefferson and the Dry Tortugas National Park. Fort Jefferson is the largest masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, built with more than 16 million bricks. Construction of Fort Jefferson began in 1846, and in those days, smooth-bore cannon could not easily damage a brick fort with thick walls. By the time of the Civil War less than 20 years later, rifled cannon had been developed, and they hurled projectiles that could easily destroy a brick fort. Fort Jefferson was rendered obsolete. Dr. Samuel Mudd, who was convicted in the conspiracy to assassinate President Lincoln, lived there as a prisoner before he was pardoned.In order to visit Fort Jefferson on your boat, you must obtain a free permit from the National Park Service. There are six free mooring balls for recreational boats available on a first-come, first-served basis in Garden Key Harbor. These are for daytime use only. If you plan to stay overnight, you are only allowed to anchor no more than a mile from the fort on the sandy bottom of Garden Key Harbor. There are no facilities for water, fuel or provisioning, so you must be self-sufficient. However, spending a day walking around the old fort and learning about its history and construction is an unparalleled experience that is well worth the time and effort to cruise there.
Capt. Jeff Werner has been in the yachting industry for over 25 years. In addition to working as a captain on private and charter yachts, both sail and power, he is a certified instructor for the USCG, US Sailing, RYA and the MCA. He is also the Diesel Doctor, helping to keep your yacht's fuel in optimal condition for peak performance. For more information, call 239-246-6810, or visit MyDieselDoctor.com. All Marinalife members receive a 10% discount on purchases of equipment, products and supplies from Diesel Doctor.
We've put together a list of 10 spots worth a look whether you simply want a change of venue or are looking to cross a species off your bucket list. Keep in mind some of these same locales have dedicated seasons, size and bag limits for the species noted and some also require a fishing license. The best point of reference no matter where you travel is a local tackle shop which can provide guidance on tackle and bait selections as well as other tips and tricks and perhaps even insight to their favorite honey hole.
The waters around Nantucket boast a variety of game fish whether fishing from the beach, pier, jetty or boat. The best action takes place beginning in April as schools of hungry striped bass arrive with a vengeance. It continues through mid-July then again from September through mid-October. A variety of techniques work including plugs, live bait and trolling. Early May sees the arrival of massive schools of bluefish and surface plugs provide excitement as choppers crash lures often within close range of the angler! Offshore trips can range outward to 100 miles for action with bluefin, yellowfin and big eye tuna, blue marlin and white marlin, swordfish, mahi mahi as well as mako and blue sharks especially during the months of June through September. Sight casting along the sandbars for large stripers, bonito and false albacore is also popular.
Where to Dock: Nantucket Boat Basin (508-325-1350, nantucketboatbasin.com)
Montauk sits at the far end of Long Island some 100 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. From the waters of Long Island Sound to its famed surf to the offshore waters there's a species to be caught from spring through late fall. May finds striped bass and bluefish arriving in a hungry mood and near shore anglers find sea bass and fluke which are present through October (with specific regulated seasons). Offshore action kicks into gear in June with mako sharks the prime target followed by bluefin, yellowfin and big eye tuna, which are available June through mid-October. White and blue marlin, dolphin and wahoo are also available during the same timeframe. For surfcasters, schools of striped bass and bluefish crashing through schools of bait as birds overhead pick an easy meal from the remains is the ultimate venue. Casting plugs into this frenzy with the Montauk Lighthouse as the backdrop is their paradise during the months of late September through November.
Where to Dock: Montauk Yacht Club Resort & Marina (631-668-7702, montaukyachtclub.com
This tiny Victorian town is the nation's oldest seaside resort and lies at the southernmost point of the Garden State and is popular year-round. For anglers looking to tangle with feisty white marlin, it is hard to beat the canyons off the South Jersey coast from August through mid-October. This is prime season to tangle with these popular billfish, which range in size from 40 to 70 pounds. This is light tackle fishing at its finest and 20 or 30-pound outfits are all you need. Catch-and-release fishing and a growth in the use of circle hooks with ballyhoo have helped white marlin stocks rebound and good days see a dozen or more of tailwalking white marlin released. Look for an occasional blue marlin to make your trip interesting and sailfish bites make a grand slam rare but possible. Dolphin, yellowfin and big eye tuna are also found during the same time of year.
Where to Dock: Canyon Club Resort Marina (609-884-0199, canyonclubmarina.com), South Jersey Marina (609-884-2400, southjerseymarina.com)
Florida's famed Gold Coast is a playground for the rich and famous from its elegantly groomed and ultra-exclusive golf and polo clubs to the glitz and glamour of Worth Ave. Here the Gulf Stream brushes the shoreline often within two miles of the coast and the best fishing occurs during the winter months as pods of sailfish invade the area from November through February. Leave your shorts at home if you want to score with spindlebeaks as seasonal cold fronts from the north kick up the sea and get the sails in a feeding mood. Live bait from kites will draw the most strikes though many prefer the traditional approach of trolling ballyhoo. In between sailfish bites look for dolphin, wahoo, kingfish and blackfin tuna to fill out the day. When the bite is on double-digit releases of sails are possible.
Where to Dock: Old Port Cove Marina (561-626-1760, opch.com)
The Florida Keys stretch from Key Largo to Key West along nearly 120 miles of US Highway 1, also known as the Overseas Highway. From the backcountry of Florida Bay to the flats which brush the coastline on both sides of the chain of islands to the crystal blue offshore waters there's a species to be caught year round. Winter months find sailfish snapping from the edge of the reef to offshore during cold fronts. Dolphin, wahoo, kingfish, blackfin tuna, bonito and Spanish mackerel are also available. The Keys are also a prime spot to add the elusive swordfish to your rÃ©sumÃ©. Bonefish, tarpon and permit patrol the flats as spring arrives while Florida Bay and Flamingo offer a shot at a backcountry slam with redfish, snook and trout. Look for wrecks and reefs to yield an abundance of tasty snapper and grouper. Other less desirable species which put up a good fight include jacks, barracuda and numerous species of sharks.
Where to Dock: Plantation Yacht Harbor Marina (305-852-2381, pyh.com), Postcard Inn Beach Resort & Marina (305-664-2321, holidayisle.com)
Orange Beach and nearby Gulf Shores, Alabama combined are home to one of the largest charter boat fleets on the Gulf Coast. These experienced captains and crews, together with the area's popular shore and pier fishing combine to offer an extensive menu of fishing opportunities. Gulf State Pier, the second largest pier in the Gulf, measures 1540 feet and is an excellent spot for land-based anglers to catch pompano, redfish, bluefish, jacks, ladyfish and flounder. Casting lures and baits from the beaches of the back bays, lagoons and gulf shore yields most of the same species as you wade the warm waters of summer. Near-shore Little Lagoon, Mobile Bay, Wolf Bay and Perdido Bay are where you'll find specked trout, redfish, sheepshead, black drum Spanish and king mackerel. On the offshore grounds look for blue and white marlin, king mackerel, yellowfin tuna, swordfish, and wahoo when trolling, while bottom dwellers such as a variety of snappers will keep rods bent on your trip.
Where to Dock: Orange Beach Marina (251-981-4207, orangebeachmarina.com), Saunders Yachtworks Orange Beach (251-981-3700, saundersyacht.com)
The Bahamas has a huge variety of species. From its sandy flats to cobalt-blue offshore waters, this popular island cluster has something for every angler. The flats of nearly every island offer excellent opportunities to cast flies or shrimp at tailing bonefish and permit year round the best action is during the spring and summer months when winds are light and fish are easy to spot. Bottom fishing for grouper and snapper species can be accomplished all year around wrecks and reefs near shore. Offshore look for the best shots at big blue marlin to occur from late March through June in the Abaco and Eleuthera islands. White marlin and sailfish are also abundant along with big mahi-mahi. San Salvador, Rum Cay and Long Island each offer great wahoo fishing during the late fall and early winter months.
Where to Dock: Abaco Beach Resort & Boat Harbour Marina (242-367-2158,abacobeachresort.com), Treasure Cay Beach Marina (242-365-8250, treasurecay.com), Hope Town Inn (242-366-0003, hopetownmarina.com)
Popular with cruise ship vacationers and honeymooners alike, St. Thomas is well known for its beautiful beaches, luxurious all-inclusive resorts and popular shopping district. If blue marlin are on your bucket list, than this island is the place to be in late summer through early fall. The backside of the full moon is when the bite for blue ones typically goes off on the North Drop and while the fish are rarely huge, most are in the 150- to 400-pound class. Trade winds can make conditions a bit sporty at times so those with a tendency to come down with a case of mal de mare should prepare accordingly. White marlin, sailfish, wahoo and big yellowfin tuna are also possibilities, though most of the billfish pros will shy away from tactics for those species because the blue marlin bite is that good.
Where to Dock: IGY's American Yacht Harbor (340-775-6454, igy-americanyachtharbor.com)
The Dominican Republic offers excellent winter and early spring billfish action with most action taking place two to 50 miles offshore. Blue marlin and white marlin are the predominant billfish species, though an occasional spearfish will also be caught. Sailfish are scarce, though yellowfin tuna, wahoo and mahi-mahi are a regular by-catch by billfish anglers. The south side of the island off La Romana tends to have a pretty good bite of blue marlin though whites are not as prevalent. From December through February blue marlin become prevalent on the FAD's (Fish Attracting Devices) though seas get sporty due to a constant breeze. The resorts off Punta Cana and La Romana get their shot at white marlin from March through May. Look for the best action to occur with white marlin on the back side of the full moon while the blues tend to bite leading up to the full moon.
Where to Dock: Marina Casa de Campo in La Romana (809-523-2111, marinacasadecampo.com.do)
Isla Mujeres, Mexico is a mecca for winter and spring sailfish action. The weather is warm, though trade winds can create rough seas but when the sailfish gang up to gorge themselves on massive schools of sardines you can rack up some serious numbers here. January through July offers the best chance at sailfish while April through July sees the arrival of white marlin. Blue marlin are found during summer months of June through August. Trolling ballyhoo is the preferred attack strategy and the location of prime fishing areas varies based on where the billfish are feeding but runs of 10-50 miles are the norm. Wahoo, dolphin and blackfin tuna make each day even more enjoyable. Nearshore you can tangle with snapper and grouper during these same months.
Where to Dock: Puerto Isla Mujeres Resort and Yacht Club (011-52-998-287-3356, puertoislamujeres.com)
One of the most adventurous activities you can do from your boat is to explore the wonderful world right beneath you via scuba diving. If you are not already certified in scuba, it's easy to learn, and even children as young as 10 can get a junior certification, so the whole family can enjoy diving together. As a life-long diver and a scuba instructor of nearly 30 years, I know firsthand the combined pleasures of boating and scuba diving. Whether from our own boat or with a local dive operator, diving has allowed my wife Dori and me to more fully explore the areas we visit aboard our boat.
Many dive sites are accessible from your own boat or dinghy, but caution must be exercised when securing your vessel at a site. Due to the damage anchors can cause to marine life or to historic shipwrecks, anchoring is prohibited in many dive areas. Special dive mooring balls are frequently placed to secure your boat while diving. Consult local regulations about the use of dive moorings and remember to always fly a Diver Down flag when diving below your boat or dinghy.
Another option besides diving from your own boat is to go out on a local dive shop's boat. Frequently, dive shops are located right in the marinas where you are staying, or they will come pick you up if they are nearby. And one of my favorite ways to dive is from shore. There are numerous dive sites you can enjoy just by walking in until the water is over your head. It's amazing what you can see just within a few hundred feet of shore. Here are several of our favorite spots for visiting by boat and enjoying some world-class diving while there.
The Great Lakes have more registered boats than any other area in the U.S. or Canada, and it's no wonder, given the clear water and charming lakeside villages. That clear, fresh water we enjoy boating in has also created a divers' dreamland by preserving the ships that have had the misfortune of sinking into it. Tobermory is one of the best boating and diving destinations in the world. Known as the Scuba Diving Capitol of Canada, Tobermory is home to the Fathom Five National Marine Park. Designated as a National Marine Conservation Area, the park was created to protect the rich maritime history contained beneath its waters.
In Tobermory, you have three choices: diving from your own boat; diving with a local dive shop; or entering from shore. Regardless of how you do it, you will experience firsthand the rich maritime history beneath the surface. Boating and diving in Tobermory are summertime activities, but the clear water and perfectly preserved shipwrecks are worth the effort during the area's short season.
Making an entry into the water from shore is one of the easiest ways to dive, but most of the East Coast's shoreline is surf with little marine life, so entering from shore is usually not possible, nor is there much to see. Cape Ann is one of the exceptional areas in the region, where entries from shore are easy, the water is clear and marine life abundant. Cape Ann is a prominent point along the scenic coast of Massachusetts north of Boston. The nearby historic fishing village of Gloucester has numerous marinas and dive shops. You could dive for weeks, never stepping onto a boat or diving the same site twice. Like Tobermory, the water can be a little chilly, but a medium-thickness wetsuit will keep you comfortable in shallow water during the summer months. The sea bed near shore is very rocky, creating the perfect habitat for lobster, starfish and octopus.
The North Carolina coast from Cape Hatteras to Cape Fear is referred to as one of the Graveyards of the Atlantic the other being off the coast of Nova Scotia and each due to the number of shipwrecks and lives lost in these waters.
The shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast provide today's recreational scuba diver a unique window into our nation's maritime past and have become artificial reefs abundant with marine life. North Carolina has also sunken properly prepared ships to act as artificial reefs. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream are very close to North Carolina's coast and with that come many of the tropical fish common in the Caribbean. Also, traveling from the north are the open-ocean pelagic species of fish, so on the same dive you can enjoy French angel fish, spotted moray eels and large schools of tuna, amberjack and Atlantic mackerel. I don't know of anywhere else in the world where all these species can be seen in the water at the same time and typically in 50 to 70 feet of visibility!
Diving in North Carolina is done only from a boat. You can anchor over many of the wrecks and reefs in your own boat or choose to join a local dive shop aboard one of their boats.
The coast of Florida from Fort Lauderdale north to Lake Worth Inlet at Palm Beach is closer to the Gulf Stream than any other area of the state. This means that the warmest, clearest water in all of Florida is along this stretch of shoreline. Centrally located Pompano Beach has become the hub of this active dive area, with numerous dive shops offering lessons, equipment and guided dives. Most dive boats in this area utilize Hillsboro Inlet to access the dive sites.Recreational and technical diving along Florida's east coast has developed into a serious business. Florida has sunk more ships as artificial reefs than any other state. Many are located in deep water for fishing enthusiasts and technical divers, but many are also in shallow water within easy reach of recreational divers. Dive sites can be accessed without problem from your personal boat, or you can dive with one of the local dive shops.
The Bahamian islands are known to have some of the clearest, most beautiful water in this hemisphere. Due to its close proximity to the East Coast, the Bahamas have been a popular destination for boaters from the U.S. and Canada for many years. Diving from your boat or dinghy is very easy in the Bahamas, and dive shops are plentiful for renting equipment or refilling scuba tanks.With over 700 islands, the Bahamas offers a wide diversity of dive sites, from shallow reefs and deep blue holes to dramatic walls full of coral and plenty of shipwrecks. The Bahamas has something for every type of diver. The inexperienced novice will find comfort and excitement in shallow water, with good visibility and plentiful marine life. The technical diver will find challenges and enjoyment in the region's steep sloping walls and deep blue holes. The Abacos are best known for shallow, clear water. The southern shore of Grand Bahama has some amazing wrecks and some of the largest expanses of solid coral in the northern area. The Exumas are a little more remote, with pristine reefs. The Bahamas is working hard to keep its pristine quality by protecting its fragile coral reefs and marine life. At all dive sites, please observe local regulations to help preserve the underwater environment.
The thin band of islands extending southwest from Miami is home to the only coral reefs in the continental United States. It is also the home of the 70-square-mile John Pennekamp State Park, located near Key Largo. This park is the first Undersea Park in the United States and is known for its iconic Christ of Abyss bronze statue.
Recreational divers discovered the Keys very early in the sport's history, as early as the 1960s, and divers have been enjoying the underwater treasures ever since. On Upper Matacumbe Key, in the village of Islamorada, is the History of Diving Museum, which tells the story of mankind's quest to explore the sea and has many cool artifacts and collections. Another major dive spot is General Hoyt S. Vandenberg wreck, located 7 miles south of Key West. This ex-military missile-tracking ship was sunk in May 2009 and is the second-largest vessel in the world to become an artificial reef. Diving is still an important part of life in the Keys. There is a dive shop on just about every key, and numerous dive guides have been published over the years describing all the best dive sites and rules for enjoying them safely.
"Today's the day!" was internationally known treasure hunter Mel Fisher's daily mantra. Every morning for 16 years, as his family and crew came aboard to begin the day's dive to discover a sunken Spanish galleon, Mel set the tone by affirming that this was the day they would be successful in their search. Mid-day on July 20, 1985, after a decade and a half, an estimated cost of $58 million and the devastating loss of family members, the Fishers did indeed find the remains of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha on the ocean floor, 35 miles southwest of Key West. Even Jimmy Buffett was part of the celebration of the amazing discovery the story goes that he sang atop the silver bars stacked aboard the salvage boat while the Fisher crew downed well-earned champagne.
The Atocha was one of hundreds of ships in the system the Spanish empire adopted from 1566 to 1790 to transport items from agricultural and building materials to precious metals, spices, sugar, tobacco and silks from their colonies in the Americas to Spain. Ships were loaded with goods from ports in Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela, then sailed together as a fleet from Cuba across the Atlantic to Spain. The Spanish government worked hard to protect these riches, and although warships and forts were effective against pirates, they were no use against hurricanes.
The Atocha was part of a flotilla that left Havana in September 1622, six weeks later than originally planned. The fleet was overtaken by a hurricane as it entered the Florida straits. Overnight, eight vessels lay scattered on the ocean floor, with their cargo and crew from the Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas.
For 60 years the Spanish government undertook salvage operations, using a large brass diving bell with a glass window. A slave would ride to the bottom, recover whatever possible, and then be hauled up by the men on deck. Salvage ship captains counted dead slaves as a business expense since this method was somewhat adequate for recovery but often lethal to the diver.
Since then, hundreds of gold-seekers have spent their lives and money searching for the remaining buried riches that the Spanish never recovered. Most of them have used legendary shipwreck diver John Potter's 1960 book The Treasure Diver's Guide, which details the locations of many shipwrecks.
Progresses in technology have altered the search for and identification of historic shipwrecks. Diving gear evolved from the deathly diving bell to dry suit-hard hat outfits, open-bottom helmets, scuba gear and now autonomous underwater vehicles. Equipment advancements such as GPS, specially designed proton magnetometers and inventions by the divers themselves -- such as Mel Fisher's "mailbox" -- have improved efficiency. A mailbox is a tube that is lowered from the stern of a securely anchored vessel. When the engines are put in gear, a layer of clear water is sent down from the surface, displacing sediment and exposing heavier artifacts.
In the early 1970s, when Mel Fisher's Treasure Salvors crew began focusing on the lost Spanish fleet, Mel's mailbox was instrumental in exposing silver bars and cannons proven to be from the Atocha. In 1980, a fortune in gold ingots, jewelry and silver coins was discovered from another ship in the fleet, the Margarita. Five years later, the Treasure Salvors found the Atocha's motherlode. Realizing the magnitude of their discovery, the Fisher family, along with archeologists and preservationists from around the country, spent years cleaning and cataloging to prevent the loss of significant historical artifacts and the abundant riches.
Maritime Heritage Society Museum collection is anchored by treasures from the Atocha and Margarita. Items include a gold chalice designed to prevent its user from being poisoned, a solid gold belt and necklace set with gems, a gold chain that weighs more than seven pounds and an impressive 77.76 carat uncut hexagonal emerald that experts have traced to the Muzo mine in Colombia.
Prior to focusing on this fleet, the Fishers had been searching with some success for the remains of a 1715 fleet --- 11 of the 12 ships were lost due to hurricane winds on their return to Spain, and were strewn about the area near present day Vero Beach.
Referred to as the 1715 Plate Fleet due to its silver cargo, the fleet has, from the 1940s until today, been the mission of many underwater explorers. Kip Wagner and the Real Eight Company, Inc. crew were instrumental in the rediscovery and recovery of the fleet's location and some of its bounty. Wagner entered into a salvage agreement with Mel Fisher, who worked the site until he and his family moved their focus to the fleet that included the Atocha.
Eventually, the Fisher family sold the exclusive 1715 Plate Fleet salvage rights to Brent W. Brisben and his father William O. Brisben, who in 2010 founded 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels, LLC (QJ), the largest permitted historic shipwreck salvage operation in Florida waters.Just 17 days after the purchase, Eric Schmitt, a subcontractor to 1715-QJ, recovered 51 gold escudos and 40 silver reales hidden inside a bronze swivel cannon. Schmitt struck again in June 2015, finding $1 million-worth of gold artifacts, including a 40-foot gold chain and an extremely rare coin minted for the King of Spain that is estimated to be worth $500,000.
And on July 28, 2015, on the three century anniversary of the sinking of the 1715 Plate Fleet, Brisben and crew located $4.5 million worth of rare coins in shallow waters off Vero Beach. Nine of the coins, called royals, were made for the King of Spain and are valued at $300,000 apiece. According to Brisben, Spanish convoy manifests state that the 1715 vessels carried the equivalent of about $400 million in today's money. To date, about $180 million of that treasure has been recovered.
Although technology has made homing in on buried shipwrecks more efficient, legal battles over ownership have made it increasingly difficult. The Fishers originally acquired the ownership rights to the Atocha wreck in the 1980s during a Supreme Court battle that ruled finders keepers. During that legal struggle, the Spanish government never asserted an interest in the lost treasure and now has no claim on it. The state of Florida did assert a claim and is entitled to 20 percent of all findings. The remaining discoveries are split between Brisben's company and whoever finds the treasure.Years of hardship, intricate legalities and wealth sharing are no match for the hypnotic allure of gold that lies untouched, awaiting discovery. From beach combers with metal detectors to multinational corporations, the common denominator is an addiction to gold.
In an interview following the latest find, Brent Brisben said that before he got into the salvage business, he thought that magic was only in fairy tales. But since the 2015 discovery, he said, I truly now believe that there is an energy that pervades these shipwrecks that I can't quantify. I believe that these shipwrecks want their stories to continue.