Mel Fisher: From chicken farmer to a $ 450-million discovery

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Today’s the Day! That was treasure hunter Mel Fisher’s motto and his mindset.

How many of us read something as a child and became fascinated enough with it to make it our life goal?  That’s what happened to Mel Fisher.  His dreams of becoming a treasure hunter started as a child when he read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. As an adult, Mel’s fascination with treasure led him to Spain to pore over worm-eaten antique treasure maps.

With a bigger-than-life-personality this former chicken farmer poured his efforts into a 16-year quest to bring up from the sea a long lost Spanish treasure ship called Nuestra Señora de Atocha. The Atocha was lost off the Florida Keys in 1622 on its journey from the “Old World” of Spain to the “New World” of the Americas.

Personal tragedy hits.

As a pioneer of undersea treasure-hunting, Mel faced many challenges and obstacles during his 16-year journey. He experienced personal tragedy when his oldest son Dirk, along with Dirk’s wife Angel and diver Rick Gage died after their boat capsized during their quest for treasure in 1975.

Still Mel and his wife Deo—along with the rest of his family—stayed the course. Then on July 20, 1985, Mel discovered the “mother lode” that had been lying on the ocean floor for more than 360 years.

The discovery.

The haul included 40 tons of gold, hundreds of thousands of silver coins known as “pieces of eight,” golden doubloons, rare porcelain, Colombian emeralds and other antiquities. The total value exceeded $450 million. Mel once famously said, Once you see the bottom of the ocean paved with gold you never forget it!

The Atocha was by far the greatest sunken treasure ever discovered, and it catapulted Mel Fisher onto the world stage when it was featured in a National Geographic TV documentary.

But fate threw Mel another “curveball”: The State of Florida moved in and levied millions of dollars in legal fees as it claimed ownership of the treasure. After a legal battle, the Supreme Court of the United Sates confirmed Mel’s ownership of the recovered treasure—with a provision that Mel’s company donate 20% of the artifacts to the State of Florida.

My meeting with Mel Fisher.

This was the point at which I first met Mel. I was only 26, and in the early days of my business. I remember watching on television what Mel went through and how determined he was to reach his goal—a goal few of us could ever imagine.

Back then, I was looking to grow my business and had the idea that there must be collectors out there who would want to own a “piece of history” from Mel’s sunken treasure haul. So I decided to call Mel and see if I could strike a deal with him to offer publicly some of the treasure he had found. When I called his office in Key West—much to my surprise—Mel himself answered the phone! We had a short conversation about potential business opportunities that concluded with Mel saying, “If you’re ever in this area, give me a call and we can get together.” That is all it took for me; I saw an opportunity that could not be passed up.

Within days, I booked a flight and called Mel to tell him I was going to be down in Key West with some friends and asked if I could stop by and see him. It was truly amazing: One day I was watching this remarkable man on TV, and a few days later I was in his office talking business face to face. I learned an important lesson here: If you see an opportunity, don’t sit back. Make the call! 

Early one Saturday morning I found myself in Mel’s office, and we clicked right away.  In the midst of discussing a possible business venture, Mel interrupted himself mid-sentence to say, “Do you want to get some soup?” It was only 10:00 am.

I thought it a little strange, but who I am to say “no” to Mel Fisher? So we took a walk to the local drinking establishment where I learned that Mel’s definition of “soup” was a double “151” and Coke! To say the least, Mel and I got along just fine as he went on to recount some fantastic stories of his explorations. His emphasized: Never give up on your dreams. Always believe in what you do—even when things dont go as you planned.

A couple hours later we had cut a deal for my company to represent Mel Fisher’s personal collection of treasures and to offer it for sale to the public. It was amazing to watch Mel swing into action: He was faxing our agreement back and forth with his lawyer in Washington—and I didn’t even know what a fax machine was back then. Mel was way ahead of his time not only in treasure-hunting, but also as a businessman and public figure. Very few could compete with Mel on all these levels.

Our relationship lasted many years. We sold lots of treasure for him. I’m still amazed when I remember him letting me enter his museum to select items for our clients—literally climbing over gold and silver bars to make our selections. He was always gracious, signing letters to authenticate the treasures purchased by our clients stating that they came from his private collection.

Sadly, Mel passed away in 1998 at the age of 77. His now famous motto, “Today’s the day” was the attitude—the mindset—that kept him focused and inspired people during good times, and fueled their determination to carry on when the going got tough.

Copyright 2014 Jerry Gladstone