Nuestra Señora de Atocha (Spanish: Our Lady of Atocha)
was a Spanish treasure galleon and the most widely-known vessel of a fleet of ships that sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. At the time of her sinking, Nuestra Señora de Atocha was heavily laden with copper, silver, gold, tobacco, gems, and indigo from Spanish ports at Cartagena and Porto Bello in New Granada (present-day Colombia and Panama, respectively) and Havana, bound for Spain. The ship was named for the parish of Atocha in Madrid.
Much of the wreck of Nuestra Señora de Atocha was famously recovered by an American commercial treasure hunting expedition in 1985. Following a lengthy court battle against the State of Florida, the finders were ultimately awarded sole ownership of the rights to the treasure.
Nuestra Señora de Atocha had been delayed in Veracruz before she could rendezvous in Havana with the vessels of the Tierra Firme (Mainland) Fleet. The treasure, which arrived by mule in Panama City, was so immense that it took two months to record and load it onto the Atocha. After still more delays in Havana, what was ultimately a 28-ship convoy did not manage to depart for Spain until 4 September 1622, six weeks late. After a hurricane struck on 5 Septermber, the crippled ship finally sank. Nuestra Señora de Atocha had lost all of her 265 crew and passengers except for three sailors and two slaves, who survived by clinging to the mizzen mast. Among the sailors killed in the disaster was Bartolomé García de Nodal, explorer of the Straits of Magellan surrounding Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America. All of her treasure sank with the ship, approximately 30 leagues (140 km) from Havana.
After the surviving ships brought the news of the disaster back to Havana, Spanish authorities dispatched another five ships to salvage Nuestra Señora de Atocha and Santa Margarita, which had run aground nearby. Nuestra Señora de Atocha had sunk in approximately 17 meters (56 ft) of water, making it difficult for divers to retrieve any of the cargo or guns from the ship. A second hurricane in October of that year made attempts at salvage even more difficult by scattering the wreckage of the sunken ship still further.
The Spaniards undertook salvage operations for several years with the use of Indian slaves and recovered nearly half of the registered part of its cargo from the holds of Santa Margarita. The principal method used for the recovery of this cargo was a large brass diving bell with a glass window on one side: a slave would ride to the bottom, recover an item, and return to the surface by being hauled up by the men on deck. It was often lethal, but more or less effective. Dead slaves were recorded as a business expense by the captains of salvage ships.
The loss of the 1622 fleet was a severe blow to Spanish commercial interests, forcing the crown to borrow more to finance its role in the ongoing Thirty Years' War and to sell several galleons to raise funds. While their efforts over the next ten years to salvage Santa Margarita were largely successful, the Spanish never located Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
Modern recovery and legal battle
Beginning in 1969, American treasure hunters Mel Fisher, Finley Ricard and a team of subcontractors, funded by investors and others in a joint venture, searched the sea bed for Nuestra Señora de Atocha for sixteen and a half years. In 1980, Fisher had earlier recovered portions of the wrecked cargo of the sister ship Santa Margarita. He also proposed the idea to several other potential helpers, who were discouraged by the fact that this dangerous professional diving job would be paid at minimum wage unless the ship could be found. The Nuestra Señora de Atocha wreck and its mother lode of silver, gold and emeralds was finally discovered in July 1985. It was Mel's son, Kane, who radioed the news to Treasure Salvors headquarters on the Florida coast, from the salvage boat Dauntless.
The salvaged coins, both gold and silver, were minted primarily between 1598 and 1621, although numerous earlier dates were represented as well, some of the dates extending well back into the 16th century. Many of the dates and types of the period had been either rare or unknown prior to the salvage of the wreck. It is understood by experts that the sterncastle, the part of the ship that would hold most of the gold and rare Muzo emeralds, is still missing from the shipwreck. These and other valuable items would have been stored in the captain's cabin for safekeeping in the rear part of Nuestra Señora de Atocha.
After the discovery, the State of Florida claimed title to the wreck and forced Fisher into a contract giving 25% of the found treasure to the state. Fisher fought the state, claiming the find should be his exclusively. After eight years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Fisher on 1 July 1992, and he was awarded rights to all found treasure from the vessel.
In 2014, Nuestra Señora de Atocha was added to the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most valuable shipwreck to be recovered, as it was carrying roughly 40 tons of gold and silver, and 32 kilograms (71 lb.) of emeralds.