While others marveled at the Atocha’s priceless historic artifacts and treasures, later to be valued at $450 million, he focused on another “treasure” entirely: the lobsters his Aunt Taffi told him were living on the wrecksite.
Today, Sean is vice president of Mel Fisher’s Treasures, the family’s shipwreck search and salvage enterprise overseen by his father Kim Fisher, headquartered beside the popular Mel Fisher Maritime Museum at 200 Greene St. in Key West.
And though the Atocha find was 25 years ago, Sean still grins at the memory of his reaction when Taffi broke the news.
“She’s telling me about this 40-foot-long, 20-foot-wide, 5-foot-tall pile of silver that they found, and I was more interested in the fact that she said there were lobsters living in the silver bars!” he said. “I couldn’t wait to grab a lobster off of it.”
Admittedly, treasure was nothing new to the young Sean. For 16 years, Mel Fisher and his family — including wife Deo, daughter Taffi and sons Kim, Kane and Dirk — had doggedly sought the Atocha. The vessel sank off the Florida Keys in a 1622 hurricane while carrying gold, silver and other riches from the New World home to Spain.
The long search took a brutal toll, including the death of Sean’s Uncle Dirk, Dirk’s wife Angel and diver Rick Gage when their salvage boat suddenly capsized. Periodic discoveries of gold, silver and artifacts fueled the team’s determination to continue, but the major part of the shipwreck remained hidden by sand, silt and the marine concretion that grows around objects underwater.
Underwater archaeologists and divers recovered large quantities of gold and silver coins, silver bars, contraband emeralds, religious and secular jewelry, cannons and other weapons, pottery and rare navigational instruments from the Atocha site. The shipwreck also provided incredible information about the Spanish empire and 17th-century shipboard life.
But according to the vessel’s manifest, much still remains undiscovered —including 130,000 silver coins and more than 400 silver bars.
As a Key West teenager, Sean crewed on his family’s search boats. He left the Keys to attend Oregon’s Portland State University, but the drama and promise of shipwreck salvage drew him back in 2005.
“When you find treasure on the bottom of the ocean, it makes your whole body tingle,” he said. “You’re finding a piece of history, something that some poor soul was holding onto in the middle of this hurricane 400 years ago, and nobody has seen since — and you’re the first person to touch it.”
Though Mel Fisher died in 1998, in recent years the team has found plenty of pieces of history including a gold bar, emeralds and hundreds of silver coins. But Sean is just as enthralled by seemingly mundane discoveries such as medical tools, pottery and a chest of nails.
Like his legendary grandfather, who handed down his passion for shipwrecks to Sean, Sean is raising his young children to understand the family legacy. His wife Star works with him at Mel Fisher’s Treasures, and his plans for the company include seeking and finding other shipwrecks worthy of his heritage.
“If there’s anything I learned from my grandfather about the treasure hunting business, it’s that if you don’t believe you’re going to find treasure, you’ve got no business being on the water,” Sean said. “If you ask any one of us Fishers what we’re in it for, it’s all about the hunt.”