Whether you’re a shipwreck fan, adventure lover, treasure seeker, history buff or simply enjoy a good party, you’ve got a world-class reason to be in Key West Thursday through Sunday, July 9-12.
Why? Because those are the dates of an exuberant event celebrating the 30th anniversary of salvager Mel Fisher’s discovery of the sunken Spanish galleon Nuestra Señora de Atocha. The find was so incredible that press around the world dubbed it “the shipwreck of the century.”
Mel and his crew uncovered the $500 million “main pile” of the Atocha’s treasure and artifacts in July 1985 after an exhaustive 16-year search. The galleon sank during a 1622 hurricane in approximately 55 feet of water 35 miles southwest of Key West — and the search’s tragedies, triumphs and perseverance displayed by Mel and his key crewmembers quickly became nearly as legendary as the fabled galleon itself.
During Mel Fisher Days, you can tour the salvage boat J.B. Magruder (which, by the way, is still used to seek a significant number of Atocha artifacts and treasures that are listed on the vessel’s manifest but haven’t yet been found), explore the Fishers’ fascinating conservation lab, hear tales from the crew that found the Atocha riches, and even undertake a land-based treasure hunt whose prize is $5,000 in silver dollars. While Mel died in 1998, it’s exactly the kind of event he would have enjoyed.
The fun begins with a dock party at 11 a.m. Thursday, July 9, at the Schooner Wharf Bar, a beloved waterfront watering hole located at 202 William St. in Key West’s Historic Seaport. The 100-foot Magruder will be berthed there and open for tours guided by Fisher crewmembers — who are practically guaranteed to share stories of salvage practices and unbelievable-but-true treasure finds.
Thursday and Friday’s schedule includes limited-admission behind-the-scenes tours of the Fisher family’s private conservation laboratory (go in the side entrance at 200 Greene St.), where objects found at the Atocha shipwreck site are conserved and studied.
While you’re there, discover scores of the galleon’s artifacts and treasures on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum at 200 Greene St. You’ll see highlights including gold and silver bars and coins, a massive 77.7-carat emerald, religious objects, rare navigational instruments and weapons — all conserved and displayed under the auspices of the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society that the man himself established in 1982.
Viewing all those amazing items is likely to awaken a craving for some treasure of your own — but don’t worry; the festival has that covered. Simply grab some cohorts and join the Amazing Mel Fisher Treasure Hunt, where teams follow clues and solve riddles while competing for a chest filled with silver dollars. Registration begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday and the hunt starts at 7 p.m.
From noon to 10 p.m. the following day, you can rock in the 200 and 300 blocks of Key West’s Duval Street during a high-energy block party. Explore and enjoy attractions including food booths, a classic car show, a silent auction featuring more than $20,000 in “plunder” up for grabs, games for kids and adults (including a dunk tank!) and a free concert starring popular regional bands.
And remember that treasure hunt? The winner will be announced at the block party and receive a treasure chest overflowing with $5,000 in U.S. silver dollars.
If you want to ratchet the festive spirit up a notch, spring for VIP backstage passes to the block party’s exclusive “Mother Lode” bash. You can party with musical headliner Sueñalo, Fisher family members and the crew that found the Atocha’s main pile in 1985.
Other 30th anniversary events include a pirate ball, a first-time showing of rare archival footage (including interviews with the crew that made the historic 1985 discovery) and the presentation of the prestigious Mel Fisher Lifetime Achievement Award.
Don’t miss this opportunity to celebrate the 30th anniversary of an iconic moment in Key West’s history — and one of the island’s legendary characters. Chances are, you’ll “treasure” every minute of it.