Old pirate or ocean visionary? The late treasure-hunter Mel Fisher was a hero to Rico Oldfield, who believes that his attitude holds important lessons for today's divers
Once, gazing out of his office window at a sultry Caribbean storm, I asked Mel Fisher a dumb question: "Who inspired you?"
He beamed at me across his desk. "Jacques Cousteau and Henry Morgan!" he said without hesitation.
"Henry Morgan?" I replied, with undisguised surprise.
"Yep! He was a privateer, you know. He sacked Panama and went on to become governor of Jamaica." The grin widened. "And I still drink his rum."
Mel Fisher, prince of underwater treasure-hunters, died a year ago, aged 75. His battlecry was "Today's the day!", today being when he would hit the motherlode, his personal Eldorado.
Mel taught himself to dive when the first six aqualungs arrived in the USA, around 1950. He started a diving school, and the first scuba store, in Redondo Beach, California. Soon his underwater films were being seen on TV.
But Mel had been captivated by Treasure Island as a child. "I would try to get all my homework done in the mornings so I could spend the afternoon reading about treasures and pirates," he recalled. He started a marine salvage group which by 1966 had become the Florida corporation Treasure Salvors.
Based in Key West, his dreams were haunted by the lost 1622 Spanish treasure fleet. And in the summer of '73 he finally found in the Marquesas Keys a silver ingot from the Nuestra Senora de Atocha.
"Because it took so long to find it, the Atocha was the most gigantic puzzle of my life," said Mel. "And it isn't all solved yet - we're still missing eight of the bronze cannons, the keel, 35 chests full of religious artefacts, a quarter of a million pieces of eight and probably another three billion dollars' worth of emeralds."
Last time we met, however, in 1992, our conversation was not of glory and gold but of the theme that haunted his life - confrontation with the authorities.
The more successful his passionate quest for lost history, the more Mel Fisher felt the hot breath of the establishment. And the further afield he searched, the further US territory seemed to stretch to engulf him.
Fisher traced the conflict back to his first big discovery in 1965. "It was several million bucks worth of doubloons," he said. "The whole ocean seemed like it was covered in them." The police were sent to watch him night and day - 50 of them, he reckoned. "They were on a boat docked in front of us and a boat behind us and there were three boats wandering around."
Finally he approached one of the officers: "I asked him: 'What in the world are you doing?' I said: 'I don't have anything to hide, just ask me and I'll give you the answer.'"
His battles tainted Fisher's perceptions of American democracy. He said he tried to talk business fairly with those claiming a state or federal right to the lost bounties of antiquity. "I tried to offer them 25 per cent, 50 per cent, and then I finally said: 'What percentage do you want?' They said: 'All of it', and I said: "Well, I'm going to have to go to court.'"
I once asked him if he had ever totalled the cost of his conflicts and court actions. "Just on the Atocha, I did," he answered. "It was $1.6 million, and that was just legal fees and expenses for the lawyers."
Mel maintained his sense of humour. He hoped one day to top the Atocha with an even more spectacular discovery, and wanted to foster his enthusiasms in others. In 1993, opening a treasure museum in Sebastian, Florida, he said: "We preserve these artefacts, we display them and we create educational programmes, encourage persistence and challenge the children to improve themselves, to hang in there, to persevere and go for their dreams."
Mel believed that the seas should remain the last free wilderness. "Once they get their foot in the door, they keep expanding," he once said of regulators. "Each year they get more and more power, more and more rules, more and more regulations, on everything, on everybody."
Soon, I fear, we will all share Mel Fisher's painful experience. State and academically formulated projects so often find themselves second runners to well-motivated amateurs or the private sector that they seem increasingly tempted to claim exclusivity.
Mel's life should teach us that any such claim of exclusivity over the oceans and their resources by an elite is not only groundless but preposterous.
His view was that rights should rest with those with the vision, luck and simple gumption to be under water in the right place at the right time.
Any diver who makes an underwater discovery bearing some degree of reward deserves a realistic share of that reward, Mel believed.
"It appears that they're going to stop all salvaging, by amateurs or anyone," he said to me in 1992. "We've all got to stand up and fight this and stop them creating huge parks that take in the entire ocean."
Thomas Jefferson said that the price of democracy is eternal vigilance. Mel Fisher said: "Today's the day.""
Appeared in DIVER - March 2000