In the 1600s and 1700s, fleets of Spanish galleons sailed regularly past the Florida Keys carrying goods and treasures from the New World back to Spain. Many such galleons sank in Keys waters, and modern-day shipwreck salvage divers have sought their wreck sites in the region for decades.
In March a team of treasure divers made a remarkable discovery — a centuries-old 40-inch gold chain, bearing an enameled gold cross and two-sided engraved religious medallion. The rosary was recovered from the sea floor during the search for a sunken 17th-century Spanish galleon.
The piece is believed to be from the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which sank approximately 35 miles west of Key West during a 1622 hurricane. It was discovered by Bill Burt, a diver for Mel Fisher’s Treasures, as he was seeking the Atocha’s sterncastle.
“It has a cross on it with black enamel and a gold medallion, and lots of lettering on the medallion and the cross,” said Andy Matroci, captain of the search vessel J.B. Magruder. “When you enter the water, you never know what you’re going to find.”
Tentatively valued at about $250,000, the rosary contains 55 links resembling cotterpins. Its cross measures 2 inches by 1.25 inches and its oval medallion features an engraved Virgin Mary and chalice. The chain also contains a black bead and two halves of a gold floweret.
Treasure hunter and dive pioneer Mel Fisher and his crew recovered more than $450 million in gold, silver and artifacts from the Atocha shipwreck in 1985, but the sterncastle has eluded discovery.
Sean Fisher, grandson of the late Mel Fisher, said the rosary’s discovery is an important pointer in their search.
“We’re in a really hot area right now, and this type of artifact is the right sort of material for the sterncastle,” he said.
In the weeks following the recovery of the chain, the crew found more than 30 silver coins, a remarkably intact ceramic “olive jar” and a 2.1-pound gold bar — additional indicators that the trail is heating up.
Certified recreational divers can work alongside the Fisher team excavating the Atocha wreck site during weeklong Atocha Dive Adventure packages offered through August 2011. The itinerary includes check-out dives, training in professional salvage techniques, behind-the-scenes tours of Key West’s Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and laboratories, where Atocha artifacts are conserved, and two full days of diving with the crew seeking the galleon’s bounty. For more information, visit www.melfisher.com.