Given enough time, the calamity of a hurricane can bring positive consequences – in the Keys, that amount of time is about 215 years.
In 1733 a Spanish treasure fleet left Havana amidst much fanfare. They were headed for Spain to deliver the king’s treasure. But two days later the seas turned. A hurricane pounded their decks. They turned course to run back to Cuba, but it was too late. The wind shifted from the south, blocking their flight and dashing 21 ships into the reefs between Marathon and Biscayne.
In time their stories were forgotten, hidden under the sea until 1948 when a local fisherman invited a diver to explore one of his prized fishing sites. It was a fateful day, not only for the diver, Art McKee, but for the future of the Keys.
“When Art jumped in the water it wasn’t the fish that astounded him, but a pile of rocks,” says treasure diver Capt. Carl Fismer. “Not just any rocks, but a ballast pile from the Spanish treasure galleon El Rubi, the flagship of the 1733 Fleet.”
Art soon found other wrecks from the fleet along with so many artifacts that he opened up the first treasure museum in the world, on Plantation Key. It drew international attention and sparked the imaginations of people around the world — including Mel Fisher, who eventually came to the Keys and found his own Spanish treasure ship, the famous Nuestra Señora de Atocha. It was another hurricane of good fortune that sank her for Mel in 1622.
Art’s museum is now Treasure Village Montessori, but Art’s legacy lives on from the rooftop tower, where three lines can still be seen etched into the stone, pointing across the ocean to the location of Art’s most beloved shipwrecks.
“Thanks to Art, the mystery of lost treasure is forever ingrained into the fabric of the Keys,” says Fismer. “It’s all thanks to a hurricane, when you really think about it.”
Karuna Eberl writes, photographs and dreams of treasure from Cudjoe Key. Her work can be found at wanderingdogcreations.com.