5. Queen Anne’s Revenge
Although far more lucrative wrecks have been found in U.S. waters, few carry the allure and priceless cultural and archaeological value of the Queen Anne’s Revenge. The flagship of the legendary pirate Blackbeard, the ship either sunk or was scuttled in 1718. A research company located the wreck site near Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, in 1996, but the remains weren’t confirmed as Blackbeard’s ship until 2011. To date, more than 250,000 artifacts have been recovered and are being preserved for display and further study. The work is detailed on a fascinating website operated by the state of North Carolina, www.qaronline.org.
4. 1715 Plate Fleet
As European explorers began sailing to the New World, the combination of primitive ships, uncharted waters and powerful hurricanes often resulted in disaster. On several occasions, entire fleets were lost at sea. Among these incidents were the Fleet of 1554, three Spanish Galleons that sank in a spring storm off Padre Island, Texas; the Fleet of 1622 (see item No. 1 below); and the Fleet of 1733, in which 17 Spanish ships went down in a hurricane off the Florida Keys. Through the years, many valuable artifacts have been recovered from these sites. But the most famous shipwreck site from these mass fleet disasters is located off the coast of Fort Pierce, Florida. Dubbed the “Plate Fleet” for the silver plates aboard, 11 Spanish ships sank in a hurricane in 1715. Although the Spanish launched a salvage mission, untold thousands of gold and silver coins went unrecovered. The fleet remained a lost footnote in history until the late 1950s, when an Ohio building contractor named Kip Wagner found some precious coins and artifacts on the beach. Intrigued, Wagner researched the history of the area, found references to the lost fleet, and was soon paddling around on a surfboard just offshore, where he found cannons and other remains. Salvage efforts continue to this day, yielding incredible treasures — in 2010, a Florida woman diving under contract for a salvage company in the area found a 22-carat solid gold bird later appraised at almost $900,000.
3. SS Republic
Shipwreck hunting is a time-consuming, difficult and expensive pursuit, but the potential rewards are undeniable. That high-risk, high-reward scenario has persuaded many venture capitalists to invest in the search for these lost treasures. One such salvage company, Odyssey Marine Exploration Inc. — which trades on NASDAQ under the symbol OMEX — hit the jackpot in 2003. Searching in 1,700 feet of water about 100 miles southeast of Savannah, Georgia, the company located the remains of the SS Republic, a steamer that sank in an 1865 hurricane. Workers have recovered more than 50,000 rare gold and silver coins, with initial estimates putting the value of the find at some $150 million. The story of the hunt for the SS Republic has been featured in a National Geographic TV special, Civil War Gold, and numerous other media reports. On a side note, Odyssey made news in February 2012 when a U.S. federal judge awarded Spain an estimated half-billion dollar cache of valuables the company recovered several years ago from a 19th century shipwreck off Portugal.
2. SS Central America
The side-wheel steamer SS Central America was bound for New York City with 15 tons of gold aboard when it sank in a hurricane off the North Carolina coast in 1857. More than 400 passengers lost their lives. Carrying thousands of gold coins and other gold from the new San Francisco mint, the wreck made headlines at the time, and contributed to a U.S. financial crisis known as the Panic of 1857. Yet with the subsequent Civil War, Reconstruction and other more pressing issues, the wreck became lost in the history books, forgotten by most. However, in the 1980s, an Ohio engineer named Tommy Thompson, who’d spent years researching shipwrecks, launched a dedicated search for the Central America. Using computerized probability models to narrow the search area, Thompson’s Columbus-America Discovery Group finally located the ship in September 1987. An estimated $150 million in gold was eventually recovered from the site, including one 80-pound gold ingot that sold for $8 million to a private collector in 2001, making it the most valuable piece of the currency in the world. Thompson’s book, America’s Lost Treasure, details the hunt for the wreck known as the “Ship of Gold.”
1. Nuestra Senora de Atocha
To say Mel Fisher is revered in marine treasure hunting circles is like saying Babe Ruth was pretty good at baseball and The Beatles had a few catchy tunes. A one-time chicken farmer, the World War II vet opened the first dive shop in California in the 1950s. Thus began his decades-long interest in treasure hunting. Fisher and some associates moved to Florida in the 1960s, formed Universal Salvors and soon made several lucrative discoveries of gold coins. The finds led to a frenzy among other treasure hunters, prompting the state of Florida to enact legislation governing the salvage of marine treasure. Meanwhile, Fisher had a bigger prize in mind — the legendary shipwreck of the Nuestra Senora de Atocha, part of a Spanish fleet sunk by a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622. Fisher’s search for the treasure endured through almost 17 tough years, during which he lost his eldest son, Dirk, and daughter-in-law when a salvage boat capsized. While the exorbitant expense of the hunt took a financial toll, as did battles with the government over ownership rights to previous finds, Fisher kept his crew going with the phrase, “Today’s the Day.” That day arrived on July 20, 1985, when his crew found the Nuestra Senora de Atocha. The cache of gold, silver and other valuables was valued at up to $400 million. Fisher, who died in 1998 at age 76, is honored today through the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West.