During our RV trip to Key West, I was eager to visit not one, but two museums dealing with old Spanish shipwrecks: Key West Shipwreck Museum and Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. Having recently completed several books on 17th and 18th-century naval exploration, I was familiar with some of the wrecks and the daily risks these sailors faced. It was pouring down raining one morning, so it provided us a great opportunity to visit both.
Key West Shipwreck Museum
The Key West Shipwreck museum sits between Duvall Street and Malory Square on Whitehead Street in downtown Key West. You can easily spot the museum by the 65-foot wooden tower, which provides amazing panoramic views of Malory Square and most of Key West. After paying admission ($16.11 per adult and $9.66 per child), you’re led down a few stairs, where you’re then presented with a 14-minute video on the ship wreckers and their early method of recovering these sunken ships. The atmosphere is perfect for watching the video—it’s dark, damp, and a strong smell of saltwater and tarred wood lingers in the air. In fact, the presentation room is located in an old cistern one foot below sea level. Curators keep two pumps running around the clock to keep water from flooding into the museum.
The museum takes you through three floors (as well as the optional climb to the top of the 65-foot tower) and uses a combination of actors, artifacts and film to tell the story of the process and the ship Isaac Allerton that wrecked off the shores of Key West in 1856. They also introduce Asa Tift, one of the most prominent wreckers in Key West at the time, who also built the Ernest Hemmingway house in 1870.
The ambiance inside the museum is reminiscent of an old 19-century vessel, with creaking wood, the scent of saltwater and water dripping from the ceiling, likely due to the heavy rains that day. The location is excellent, nestled right in the heart of everything you’d want to visit in Key West. While the price seems a little steep, we appreciated the few artifacts from the shipwrecks Isaac Allerton and El Cazador. Unfortunately, there are few real photo opportunities. Consider leaving your DLSR behind and use your cell phone to snap a shot at the top of the tower. Prior to our visit, I had assumed we would see a lot of shipwreck artifacts and was disappointed to find them lacking. However, the focus of the museum appears to be more on the wrecking process rather than actual artifacts. If you’re in Key West and have 45 minutes to spare, it’s worth a stop at the Key West Shipwreck Museum.
Mel Fisher Maritime Museum
Just a few blocks away from the Key West Shipwreck Museum is the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. You’ll know you’ve found the gallery when you see the giant ship anchor and 17th-century cannons just outside of the main entrance.
A bit of history: On September 4, 1622, 28 Spanish ships departed Havana, Cuba for Spain. One of the Spanish treasure galleons traveling with the fleet, the Atocha, was loaded to the rim with gold, silver and other precious stones. Two days after departing Havana, the convoy ran into a devastating hurricane off the Florida Keys. Eight of the 28 ships sank, including the Atocha. Although Spain sent salvage crews to locate and recover the lost ships, the Atocha was never found.
On July 20, 1985, 363 years later, American treasure-hunter Mel Fisher discovered the Atocha in 56 feet of water between Key West and the Dry Tortugas. After all was said and done, Fisher’s crew salvaged almost 500 million dollars in treasure. Most of the museum centers around the Atocha wreck and exhibits many of the one million recovered artifacts.
Strolling through the museum, I couldn’t help but feel like a giddy kid. An amazing story about hurricanes, shipwrecks and sunken treasure seemed straight out of Hollywood. But this museum is the real deal. One of the first exhibits you’ll encounter is an actual anchor from the Atocha. It’s impossible to miss that the iron shank is completely sheared off, a testament to the raw power of the hurricane that sunk the ship. Standing in front of the anchor, I contemplated how the crew likely threw out the anchors to prevent the ship from being washed into the reefs surrounding the Keys, only to see the storm tear those very anchors apart.
A plethora of artifacts are scattered throughout the museum, including cups, plates, and other daily items used by the crew. Precious stones such as gold, emeralds and diamonds from the wreck shine and sparkle in their cases. While the Shipwreck museum is more about educating the viewer in the wrecking process, this one is all about the artifacts. And if artifacts happen to be your cup of tea, then the Mel Fischer Maritime Museum in Key West will not disappoint.
Conveniently located in the middle of all the action in downtown Key West, the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum is worth a stop. Admission price is a value at $15 for adults and $7 for children. The museum is open 365 days a year (Monday through Friday 8:30am-5:00pm, and weekends and holidays 9:30am-5:00pm).