Key West lost one of its treasured legends on Dec. 17, when diver, underwater photographer and treasure finder Don Kincaid lost his battle with cancer at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Miami. He was 73.
Word of his death spread quickly. Divers all over town, upon hearing the news, raised their drinks to the man who, in 1971, found the first glint of gold from the Spanish galleon Nuestra Senora de Atocha, which sank off Key West in September 1622.
“Don was one of those extremely talented and larger-than-life personalities who is, was, an integral part of Key West,” said long-time friend and fellow treasure diver Jean “Golden Girl” Thornton. “He was one of my heroes.”
Kincaid’s adventures on the high seas started early. When he was 8, Kincaid and his mother, a Key West Conch who married a Navy man, spent 28 days crossing the Pacific — San Francisco to the Philippines — aboard a navy troop transport ship. His fascination with photography and shipwrecks started in the Philippines and continued during a stint in the U.S. Army, where Kincaid worked as a photographer and videographer. Finishing his service in 1971, Kincaid returned to Key West and got a job in a local camera shop — right around the time that treasure hunter Mel Fisher’s slide projector broke.
“I realized who he was and immediately asked him for a job,” Kincaid said in 2015. He then spent years, from 1971 until well after the July 20, 1985 discovery of the Atocha’s mother lode of treasure, diving and documenting the search and recovery of $400 million in gold, silver, emeralds and artifacts for both Fisher and National Geographic.
He had only been working for Fisher a few months when, in July 1971, he rolled off the side of a treasure-hunting boat and dove down to photograph an anchor thought to be from the Atocha.
“I saw these little shiny, metal links sticking out of the silt, and I started pulling,” Kincaid said a few years ago, remembering the greenish cast on the cold metal that made him think he’d found something bronze or copper.
When he surfaced moments later and looked again, there was nothing green about the chain he held in trembling hands. It was more than 8 feet long and it was all gold.
“Another crew member was up on the deck taking a whiz off the side of the boat, and when he saw what I had, he lost his balance and peed all over himself,” Kincaid recalled a few years back.
“Of course it would be another 14 years before we found the main pile (of treasure),” Kincaid said. “But yeah, that was the first gold found on the Atocha site.”
Kincaid continued to work with the salvage team and for National Geographic for many years. He later served on the board of directors and as a vice president of Fisher’s company. He also operated the Stars & Stripes charter catamaran and served on the board of the non-profit Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society, which operates the Mel Fisher Maritime History Museum.
The museum has inherited 30,000 of Kincaid’s images for its archives, executive director Melissa Kendrick said.
“He was a special part of Key West and of my life, and he will be greatly missed by both,” Thornton said.