Every city or town has something unique about it. Vero Beach has more than one. Like many places in the United States, Europeans weren’t the first ones to settle here. Until the mid 1500’s, this area was mainly inhabited by the Native American Tribe, Ais. They lived in villages along the shores of the Indian River from around Cape Canaveral all the way down to Port St. Lucie. At the time they were living here, the mosquitos were plentiful and the vegetation was plentiful. It is said that the first wave of non native Americans came to this area beginning around 1566, when Pedro Menendez de Avillas established the mission in what is now St. Augustine.
As with much of the history in the US, after a time the indigenous people died out and the Europeans took over ownership of Florida.
The area from Cocoa Beach on down into Stuart, became known as the Treasure Coast after a fleet of ships from the New Spain Flota, loaded with gold, and jewels and other precious metals, sunk off our coast in 1715. This New Spain Flota had sailed to Mexico where they took on their precious cargo of gold, silver, and emeralds. Another Fleet, known as the Tierra Firme had sailed to South America to gather gold, silver, and pearls. Once each fleet had completed their mission, they met in Cuba to re-supply for the trip back to Spain, now sailing as one large fleet.
Loaded up with treasures the total value of their cargo has been estimated to be anywhere from two hundred million to one billion dollars in today’s dollars. Although there was a French warship travelling with them to guard against raids by pirates, they were not saved from the fury of Mother Nature and the sea. Only five days into the trip back to Spain, the fleet encountered the kind of harsh wind and waves we see every time the weather channel covers our hurricanes. These conditions caused the ships to be pushed off course and all but one the fleet sunk along our coast line.
Without the right tools to harvest it, most of the treasure just lay there on the ocean floor until Mel Fisher and his family came along and settled here. Mel Fisher was quite a colorful and inventive man, and a great treasure hunter. He opened one of the first dive shops out in California and I believe that is where his Treasure Hunting began in earnest.
Taken From the Webpage, A Tribute to Mel Fisher:
“In 1962, returning from the Caribbean through Florida, Mel had a meeting with a treasure hunter named Kip Wagner. Wagner had been attempting to salvage remains of the ten shipwrecks of the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet lost in a hurricane off Florida’s East Coast. Ill-equipped, with his crew unable to devote full-time to the project, Wagner invited Mel to join him on a 50-50 basis.
Mel, along with a hand-picked team of seven people, agreed to move to Florida and work for one year without pay while searching for the big bonanza. After 360 days of “no finds”, the team was testing a device Mel invented called the “mailbox”. This is a tube which is lowered from the vessels stern over the propellers while the boat is securely anchored. The engines are then put in gear and the prop wash sends a layer of clear water from the surface downward to the bottom so the divers can see. But it did more than bring clear water to the bottom so that the divers could see. The “mailbox” also dug a hole in the sand and revealed 1,033 gold coins. Mel Fisher exclaimed “Once you have seen the ocean bottom paved with gold, you’ll never forget it!” They were hooked. The team continued salvaging the 1715 Fleet for another decade.
During the winter months, it was impossible to dive and salvage the 1715 Fleet because of storms and rough waters. Around 1969, Mel shifted his focus from the 1715 sites to the tropical waters of the Florida Keys in search of the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha which he had read about in Potter’s Treasure Diver’s Guide. It was a royal guard galleon with 40 tons of gold and silver aboard which sank in a devastating hurricane along with others in 1622. Mel had found a new goal worthy of this greatest effort. The hunt had begun.
One of Mel’s projects was to operate a floating treasure museum. Mel searched in Europe and purchased an old ship in 1967. It was brought across the Atlantic Ocean and converted into a full size reproduction of a Spanish galleon which served as a floating museum and headquarters for Mel’s operations.
If you have a couple of hours one afternoon, take a drive over to his Mel Fisher Museum in Sebastian. It’s fun to gaze on the different artifacts there and to hear the story of Mel Fisher and his family. The Fishers became a prominent group here along the Treasure Coast. It’s not uncommon to meet a grandchild or even a great-grandchild of Mel Fisher here in Indian River County.