The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum located at 200 Greene Street in Key West FL brings an amazing story of shipping history to life.
The fateful tales of ships, their crews and passengers lost forever at sea, unfolds before your eyes.
There's also the equally sad story of those who died resurrecting the ancient artifacts from the deep.
Mel's son Dirk, Dirk's wife Angel, and a diver perished when the Northwind, the boat they were sleeping on sank.
For centuries, the waters off the Florida Keys have served as a watery grave for thousands of treasure ships. The reasons for this are many.
The combination of heavy traffic, strong currents, and shallow waters laced with barely submerged shoals and coral reefs have taken their toll. Factor in the numerous tropical storms and Florida hurricanes, and you have the perfect recipe for shipping disasters.
A 501 (c) (3) organization, the Mel Fisher Museum is one of the more spectacular Key West museums that is also fully handicapped accessible. It houses an amazing selection of historical finds gathered from a number of shipwrecks off the Florida Key's and the Bahamas.
The 1622 Spanish Fleet Treasure
The undisputed cornerstone of the Mel Fisher museum are the rich finds of the two famous Spanish Galleons, the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, and the Santa Margarita.
Both of these Spanish treasure ships met with disaster near the Marquesas Atoll during the horrific September 6, 1622 hurricane. Out of the 265 people aboard the Atocha, only 5, including slaves, survived.
The wealth of gold, silver, pearls, silverware, and other precious cargo that fell to the bottom of the sea was immense. On display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum are salvage from the Atocha shipwreck and the Santa Margarita.
Included are numerous pieces of jewelry, gold and silver. Just some of the more exceptional Atocha treasure items are an intricately designed gold plate, a 7 pound gold chain, an uncut hexagonal 77.76 carat emerald, and a solid gold belt.
Perhaps even more important than the recovered wealth, is the opportunity to gain a clear look into the lives of those who traveled aboard. Swords, and navigational tools, along with military armaments, cooking utensils, seeds, and tools used for different trades, are all identified and on display at this Key West museum.
The Henrietta Marie
Another important find of Mel Fisher's was the English Slaver, the Henrietta Marie. The social importance of this vessel is such that it has been turned into a traveling exhibit, visiting different museums across the nation.
The Henrietta Marie plied the infamous slave trading triangle, picking up and delivering her precious human cargo to various ports o'call. It was in 1700, shortly after delivering 190 slaves to Jamaica, that she sank.
With artifacts from the maritime slavery era being rare, the finding of the Henrietta Marie has brought considerable insight into the dark days of this industry. The revelation as to how the vessels were rigged to handle their captured human cargo, is of particular importance.
A grim reminder of their bondage was the fact that over 80 pairs of shackles were found at this Florida Keys wreck site. Also uncovered was a variety of gallery items, personal affects, and a large assortment of Venetian glass trade beads.
The Santa Clara
Precious artifacts have also been uncovered from another important find, a vessel believed to be the Santa Clara. This was a 1564 ship that sank off the Bahamas somewhere within 10 - 20 years after this date.
Revealing a vast assortment of valuable archaeological finds, this ship has been particularly beneficial in shedding light on the cultures and lifestyles of this period.
The Santa Clara or the St. John's - Bahama Wreck, has also proved helpful in understanding the colonization efforts of the new world. Spain and her rivals were focusing their attention on the Americas, and were rapidly harvesting the abundant and rich resources of the new world. On display are a number of interesting finds from this important shipwreck.
Other Mel Fisher Museum
Exhibits And Research
Also on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is an exhibit of the last 3 slave ships brought to Key West Florida in 1860. A terrible tale is told of the slaves on board who were set free, only to succumb to horrible deaths. 295 of the freed slaves died during their 85 day stay in Key West.
Their bodies were buried on the south shore in shallow graves, until Fort Zachary Taylor's construction of the West Martello Tower #1 began in earnest. When soldiers began to discover the bodies, all but 15 were reinterred further down what is now Higgs beach.
The artifacts and documents presented at this Key West museum provide important insight into the history of shipping. The construction, the loading practices, and the lifestyles of those who traveled aboard these mighty vessels spring to life, as you work your way through the exhibits.
Through the carefully restored remnants, and pictures taken during the salvaging process, we're given a rare and precious glimpse into the past.
Additionally, ongoing field work continues at a variety of locations including Turtle Harbor, north and east of Key Largo. This wreck site includes the remains of another slaver ship the Guerrero, which grounded and sank after being chased by the HMS Nimble.
African Cemetery At Higgs Beach in Key West
State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, Dale M. McDonald Collection
Discounts For Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
A visit to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum successfully brings history to life. Here you're able to not only see what was once sunken Spanish treasure, you'll capture a sense of those who traveled on board. Their personal affects reveal so much of their daily life. Their weaponry and eating utensils simultaneously appear crude, yet somehow sophisticated.
Some of the exhibits will awe you, others will leave you saddened, even shaken. It's impossible not to conjure up images of slaves shackled to the ship and each other, forced to travel to unknown lands. You can almost hear their cries and feel their heartbreaking pain and suffering.
As you pass the different exhibits you can also imagine the lives of the soldiers, and sailors onboard. Their yearning for land and loved ones as they ride the high seas once again. Their tangible fear, as they face the brunt of hurricane winds and strong waves, slashing and tearing at their ship as she breaks apart.
The Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is one of those venues that fully delivers what you're paying for. It will educate you, excite you, awe you, and leave you with a greater sense of history. It is one of those "must see" Key West attractions, and it's one you won't soon forget.
The entrance fee for the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is also one of the Key West museums that can be discounted if you purchase your tickets online.
Historically, lineups in Key West FL are notoriously long, especially during the peak travel season which is Fall - Winter - Spring. This may be the "perfect weather months" but it's also the time of year when congestion is heaviest.
Due to this fact, some museums no longer accept credit cards. This has reduced the congested lineup problem, but it also means you need to carry more cash.
Instead of carrying large sums of cash, what's smarter is to purchase your tickets online. Buying your e-tickets now, in advance, not only saves you money, it makes planning your Florida Keys vacation easier.
Another benefit of buying online is that you can get a combination ticket that really is worthwhile. The Mel Fisher Martime Museum - Ernest Hemingway Home and Gardens combo tour package will save you money over buying individual tickets, and by buying now online, you'll save even more.
There's so much to see and do in Key West FL, however I believe you'll find that both this museum, and the Ernest Hemingway home will be particularly worthwhile.
In some regards, a visit to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is like a trip to the Tower of London where the Crown Jewels are on display, or a sneak peak into the late, great Elizabeth Taylor's jewelry box. It's not too often you get to see a 77.76 carat emerald up close, and that alone is worth the visit.