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GOING FOR THE GOLD

Nearly three decades after the wreck of the Spanish galleon Atocha was discovered off Key West, the sunken ship continues to relinquish its treasures, piece by piece. For $3,000, amateur treasure hunters can dive alongside the professional salvagers.

Long before Johnny Depp twisted his beard in Hollywood and before any X ever marked the spot, a real-life Spanish galleon left Havana Harbor with real-life treasure stowed heavily in its hull.

The Nuestra Senora de Atocha sailed for Spain in 1622, carrying gold, silver and emeralds from the New World home to the king.

The ship didn't make it.

A hurricane overwhelmed the Atocha on Sept. 6, 1622, killing more than 200 people and tossing its priceless cargo into the vast ocean surrounding an island known as Cayo Hueso.

The legendary account of the ill-fated galleon became a modern-day fairy tale when treasure hunter Mel Fisher's "golden crew" of divers discovered the Atocha's $400 million "mother lode" of treasure in waters about 35 miles from Key West.

Assuring his team every day that "Today's the day," Fisher endured 16 years of searching, skepticism and the loss of a son. The day came on July 20, 1985, when divers Greg Wareham and Andy Matroci became the first people in more than 300 years to look upon the lost galleon's disintegrated timbers and perfectly intact "reef of silver bars."

The main treasure pile consisted of silver bars "stacked like cordwood," as Fisher always had predicted: clusters of silver coins, gold bars, gold chains, jewels and thousands of South American emeralds.

The discovery made global headlines, involved a Supreme Court decision about ownership and became a Hollywood movie, with Cliff Robertson playing Fisher, and Loretta Swit cast as his wife, Deo.

Mel Fisher died in 1998, leaving the family business and his unending optimism to son Kim and grandson Sean. The story of his quest is known worldwide.

But a lesser-known tale is still being written.

The ocean continues to relinquish, piece by piece, the Atocha's riches, and divers for Mel Fisher's Treasures continue to scour the ocean floor. The search now centers on the galleon's unofficial cargo: gold chalices, rosaries and crosses that belonged to the clergy, and the gold money chains, coins and jewelry of the aristocrats, who often smuggled the wealth they acquired in Central and South America aboard to avoid paying taxes on it. That gold and its owners are thought to have traveled in the Atocha's topside sterncastle section; the Fishers think it was ripped from the deck, its priceless, undocumented contents scattered by the storm over a watery and wavering trail.

"It's amazing how many people don't know we're still doing this, still finding treasure," said Joe Beaton of the company's investor relations team, which is charged with raising capital for the continuing search.

That search is financed by investors who buy into the adventure with a minimum annual investment of $12,500 for one-eighth of one share. Thirty-five shares are sold annually, with the Fisher family retaining 65 percent of the company. The investors receive a "division" of the treasure and other artifacts recovered that year.

"Once people understood that we're still working the trail and still bringing up gold, they would always ask if they could pay us just to dive the site," investor relations manager Shawn Cowles said. "But for years investors were the only ones allowed out there with us. A few years ago, we created the Atocha Adventure experience and opened six trips a year to the general public."

Because the company is not publicly traded, he said, it is subject to government regulations that limit its advertising options. "In essence, these trips became a way for us to advertise since we're offering dive vacations, not investment opportunities."

The $3,000 Atocha Adventure is a six-day introduction to treasure hunting. Divers spend a week in a private condominium in Old Town Key West and three days diving alongside professional treasure salvagers at the underwater search sites around Key West.

"It gives people a chance to get their feet wet before deciding whether to make the financial commitment of an investor," Cowles said.

Often convincing themselves that the sterncastle discovery will occur as soon as they walk away, about half of all Atocha Adventurers end up as investors, Beaton said, fingering the ancient coin he wore on a neck chain.

Coins from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha lie in keepsake boxes all over the world, but they are more often concealed under the shirts of those familiar with Fisher's dream.

"They're the single most-collectible item from the Atocha because you can wear them," said Bill Lorraine, also a member of the investor relations team. "The coins are a combination of history and jewelry."

The 1985 excavation of the mother lode turned up 142,000 of the ship's 230,000 documented silver coins. They sell for between $1,200 and $14,000 at Mel Fisher's Treasures, depending on size and condition. Thousands are still unaccounted for, and no two are alike.

"In the 1600s, when you bought something, people didn't give change, they just chipped off a portion of your coin to coincide with the item's cost in silver," Lorraine said, explaining the coins' irregular shapes.

What we now call treasure coins once were "the most coveted and widely traded money on Earth," said Carol Tedesco, an expert in antique coins and spokeswoman for Blue Water Ventures, a joint-venture partner with Mel Fisher's Treasures that is excavating the wreck of the Atocha'ssister ship, the Santa Margarita, which sank in the same hurricane.

The ancient coins, known locally as "Key West dog tags," are enduring reminders of a Spanish galleon that never made it home and of the man who finally found it at the bottom of the sea.

For more information about Mel Fisher's Treasures and the Atocha Adventures, visit melfisher.com.

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