By Carrie Caignet

After discovering pearl oyster beds in the Caribbean area of the Atlantic Ocean, Spanish explorers routinely enslaved native divers and make them retrieve pearls from the ocean floor. The Spaniards also forced many of their African slaves to learn to dive in the pearl fisheries.  The 1622, 1715 and 1733 Spanish fleets were lost in hurricanes off the coast of Florida.  The ships were fully loaded with the immense stockpile of accumulated gold and silver hence the name “plate fleet” from the SPanish word for silver…Plata.


After surviving a hurricane in 1622, Concepcion, sister ship to the infamous Nuestra Senora de Atocha was lost off the coast of Hispanola on a bar known as Silver Shoals.  When the hurricane struck, it destroyed eight of the twenty-eight vessels comprising the Tierra Firma Flota and scattered the wreckage across the lower Florida Keys and the Dry Tortugas.

To this day, five of the ships have never been found, and only a portion of the cargo from those that were found could be recovered. William Phips, the first Colonial Governor of Masachuttes salvaged the Concepcion and recovered  over 200,000 pounds worth of treasure for the English crown in 1687 (years after the Spanish abandoned their salvage effort).

Hurricanes took Spanish gold to the bottom of the sea again in the 1715 catastrophe, the Spanish government sent numerous salvage vessels to recover what they could of the lost treasure after both losses. The Spanish even used diving bells and impressed Florida natives such as the Calusa Indians to dive and recover the treasure. The salvage effort was urgent.  The losses of treasure seriously damaged Spain’s economy and eventually contributed to the decline of her empire.By 1718, Spain had given up on any further salvage efforts.

The Spanish incurred a terminal financial blow in 1733 with the loss of several ships to a hurricane in the Upper Florida Keys.  Shortly after, the empire fell and and the exact locations of the ships—that still contained many millions of dollars worth of treasure—were lost.


After Key West was settled in 1822, many more American vessels came to the Keys to salvage wrecks.  Rivalry with the Bahamians over salvage rights started immediately and, in 1825, the American wreckers succeeded in persuading Congress to pass a law that barred the Bahamians from salvaging in the Keys. In 1831, Jacob Housman, a famous wrecker from Key West, purchased Indian Key for $5000, including the store and the hotel.  Indian Key woud go on to become the county seat of Monroe and Housman an infamous character in Keys history.


In the early 1900’s William Miller and his wife Carrie came to Miami, FL. By 1913, Miller partnered up with William S. Dunn in a Hardware & Plumbers and Tinners business, in the center of town on Ave D.  In  1916, Miller and Dunn patented the Miller-Dunn Divinhood.  The young, rich and famous were some of the first to try the helmets for pleasure diving in the waters of South Florida and the Florida Keys.

The “Dunn Divinhood” copper helmet was simple, light, very practical and easy to use. It had a single viewing port, a handle on top to easily lift it over the diver’s head. An ordinary garden-hose fitting provided air to the diver and it was imprinted with the trademark “‘Dunn Divinhood’.  The secret of its success and popularity was that it was so well designed for diving in the warm shallow waters of South Florida.



A young contract diver with the Army Corp of Engineers, Art McKee came to the Upper Keys and within a decade became the father of modern treasure salvage with the use of the Miller Dunn Divinhood. McKee was 28 years old when he first began to search for treasure wrecks. A commercial fisherman, Reggie Roberts, told him that he’d seen cannon “sticking out of an old pile of ballast rocks down by Plantation Key.”

McKee dove the site, and brought ashore various indecipherable artifactsm which  turned out to be silver coins. After research, he learned that the site was that of the

Capitana el Rui, the flagship of the Spanish treasure fleet of 1733 sunk by a hurricane in the Florida Straits that ye

ar. McK
silver coins dated before 1733, silver statues, religious medals, candlesticks, pewter mugs and plates, jewelry, buttons and buckles, navigation instruments, daggers, swords, pistols, cannonballs and grapeshot, broken crockery, ship’s blocks and bits of rope.ee, along with friends, excavated the wreck for some years. They excavated twenty different sizes of cannon, more than a thousand

McKee wanted to place these artifacts in a museum, but didn’t have the capital. He started various related sidelines – ferrying tourists out to the wreck site to watch divers working, and then, later, allowing tourists to go down to the site in a hard hat. In 1949, when McKee was 39, he had enough funds to build a museum called McKee’s Museum of Sunken Treasure.

In addition to the Capitana, McKee and his associates found and e excavated nine of the twenty-two ships lost in the 1733 hurricane. However, in 1960, McKee’s claim to the wrecks in this area was challenged by rival treasure hunters, the River Rats consisting of Tim Watkins, Olin Frick, and other divers, operating aboard a ship named The Bucanneer. McKee went to the state to attempt to enforce his rights, as he’d leased the area from the state. He learned that the wrecks were 3-and-a-half miles offshore, and the state only had legal authority within 3 miles, so he could do nothing legally to keep rival treasure hunters from the wrecks in his “leased” area.


The next evolution of treasure divers including Mel Fisher, continued to search and find the lost treasure of the Spanish Plate fleets.   The Atocha wreck and its mother lode of silver, gold and emeralds were finally discovered on July 20, 1985. Fisher had earlier recovered portions of the wrecked cargo of the sister ship Santa Margarita in 1980.  After the 1985 discovery, the United States government claimed title to the wreck, and the State of Florida seized many of the items Fisher had retrieved from his earliest salvage expeditions. After eight years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Fisher. The Fisher family continues salvaging Spanish wrecks off the coast of Key West to this day.


Through a slow evolution, treasure diving paved the way for the science we know today as underwater archeology. Carl Claussen, a Florida pioneer in underwater archaeology, sought out people like Art McKee for insight on techniques in excavation and preservation of objects which have been submerged for centuries.  He began working at an unusual karst formation similar to the cenotes of Mexico.  The site has been the focus of interest by archaeologists since the 1950’s. Claussen was funded by  company known as General Development Corporation or GDC from 1972 – 1979 to survey Little Salt Springs in North Port, Florida. Clausen recovered numerous prehistoric artifacts, such as a boomerang dating to about 9,500 calendar years. He also recovered late Ice Age fossils, including an extinct tortoise, and bones from a mastodon and a giant ground sloth. These were reported in SCIENCE in February 1979. The site is now held by the University of Miami and full-scale diver excavation has been conducted in earnest since 2004.

Submerged artifact salvage has become a process which includes conservation and the identification of provenance.  This evolution affords a greater understanding of the human story, cultures and their respective period.  Many artifacts remain in the public trust and over 300 years of shipwrecks and historically sensitive sites are managed and interpreted through the State of Florida and the National Parks Service.  Just remember,   treasure salvage is a strictly regulated activity within the US and abroad with heavy consequences for violators.   Below are links to additional information about the historic shipwrecks of the Florida Keys and the policy on fossil collecting in Florida.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Shipwreck Trail

The State of Florida 1733 Spanish Galleon Trail

Florida Shipwrecks:  National Register of Historic Places

National Parks Service:  Teaching with Historic Places

Little Salt Spring | University of Miami, Rosenthal School:  Division of Marine Affairs

Florida Museum of Natural History | Fossil Permits