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History of the Santa Margarita

The Santa Margarita was a Spanish galleon of 600 tons, armed with twenty-five cannon. Second in riches only to her companion ship, Nuestra Señora de Atocha, she was one of a fleet of ships voyaging to Spain with an enormous cargo of plundered New World treasures. In registered wealth, the Santa Margarita carried 166,574 silver “pieces of eight” treasure coins, 587 ingots of silver weighing some 10,000 pounds, and over 9,000 ounces of gold in the form of bars, discs and bits. Additionally, there was contraband—fortunes in “unregistered” treasures having been smuggled on board to avoid paying a 20% tax to the Spanish king. The Margarita also carried riches in the form of copper, silverware, indigo, and personal possessions of officers, passengers, and crew, including medical tools, navigational instruments, gold coins, cultural souvenirs and precious jewelry of almost unimaginable opulence.


Spain and her creditors awaited the arrival of the fleet anxiously, as its precious cargo would refresh royal coffers, repay loans, and lessen the financial pressures that plagued the kingdom. But when news of the fleet arrived, it wasn’t good. Subsequent to departing the island of Cuba on September 4, the fleet was overtaken by a rapidly developing storm. Within days, the Atocha, Santa Margarita, and several other ships in the fleet were wrecked near the Marquesas Keys in the Florida Straits. More than 500 passengers and crew were drowned, 142 from the Santa Margarita. Lost was a king’s ransom in treasure—a serious setback for Spain, whose supremacy in the world was upheld by the wealth of the Indies.

17th Century Salvage Attempts:

The first attempt to find and salvage the fleet casualties was undertaken almost immediately by the Spanish mariner Captain Gaspar de Vargas. Vargas found the remains of the Rosario and rescued both her survivors and her cargo, but returned to Spain in 1623 defeated in his search for the Atocha and Santa Margarita.

In this painting by artist Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, treasure-­bedecked Isabel de Valois, wife of King Philip II of Spain, wears a necklace, belt and dress ornaments almost identical to sections of jewelry (seen in upper right corner of image) recovered from the Margarita site by Captain Dan Porter, now on exhibit at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum.


In 1624, Havana politician Francisco Melian obtained a royal salvage contract for the fleet galleons. This imaginative entrepreneur manufactured an ingenious piece of equipment that allowed his divers to see and breathe while working underwater. It was a diving bell, and it was this invention that allowed an enslaved diver to locate the first treasure of the Santa Margarita and win his freedom.


While the rich Atocha, which sank in approximately 60 feet of water, eluded searchers until 1985, Melian was able to salvage treasure from the Margarita for several years, though intermittently, as his efforts were interrupted by periods of tempestuous weather and interference from Dutch sea forces.


Eventually however, ripping currents and the deep, rapidly shifting sands of the Florida Straits defeated Melian’s efforts as well, and further search and recovery efforts were abandoned. A vast fortune was left behind. In time, the Santa Margarita was forgotten. However, records of Melian’s salvage efforts survived in fragile, worm-chewed papers in the archives of Spain.


Present Status:

In 1980, due in large part to archival research conducted by Dr. Eugene Lyon—today recognized as the foremost authority in the world on the history of the 1622 fleet—a  team  led  by  the  late  Mel  Fisher  discovered  a  23-ft. long  portion  of  the Santa Margarita. About $25 million in treasures and artifacts were recovered. Five years later, and just three miles away, Fisher’s team discovered the lower hull section of the Atocha shipwrecka $400 million find. Title to both shipwrecks was awarded to the Fisher organization by the Admiralty Jurisdiction of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida and by the United States Supreme Court.


Multi-millions in lost riches from these shipwrecks—chests full of silver treasure coins, silver and gold bullion bars, magnificent jewels, cultural artifacts—still remain buried beneath deep sand and mud along the vessel’s paths of destruction, and require specialized tools for search and recovery operations.


In 1622, eyewitnesses aboard another ship of the fleet watched as the Santa Margarita was swept on the crest of a wave over a barrier reef and driven forcefully into a sandbar, where hurricane force wind and waves beat the vessel to pieces. One month later, a second and even more severe storm struck, reportedly interrupting the efforts of Gaspar de Vargas on the Rosario site, and further dispersing the wreck. This scatter occurred in an area of the Florida Straits where racing currents continually create and dissolve dunes of sand many feet deep. A high level of experience, proficiency and technology is required on such a widely dispersed and challenging site. MRR is contracted by Motivation, Inc., the permit holders of the site, to conduct a concentrated operational plan required for successful search and recovery on the Santa Margarita.

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