North America

Before Hurricane Irma: 395 Years Ago This Week, a Monster Hurricane Claimed Spain’s Tierra Firme Fleet

Screen Shot 2017-09-10 at 10.14.07 PMWhile Hurricane Irma lashes the Florida Keys this weekend, it’s worth remembering an incredible history of hurricanes that have decimated the Keys over the centuries. Believe it or not, almost exactly 395 years ago, a monstrous hurricane battered the Tierra Firme flota (mainland fleet) of the Spanish Empire while sailing right into a powerful hurricane near the Dry Tortugas. At that time, the Spanish Empire was the most powerful nation in the world and its Armada was the queen of the seas.

I have always been fascinated by the stories of Spanish treasure and wrecks, and I learned quite a bit about them while studying in some of Madrid’s museums and libraries. A few years ago, my brother and I took a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver float plane from Key West to the Dry Tortugas (read about the journey to Fort Jefferson here). We flew not far from the wreck site of Nuestra Señora de Atocha, which our pilot described as the Almirante (rear guard) of the fleet. It turned out to be the richest shipwreck in the world.


Just one wreck we flew over in the Quicksands of the Florida Straits.

I highly recommend reading about the Atocha and 20 ships that sailed into an epic storm on September 5, 1622, after leaving the port of Havana on their way back to Sevilla, Spain. By the next morning, eight of the ships were on the ocean floor scattered from the Marquesas Keys to the Dry Tortugas. Just as fascinating was the story of the shipwreck recovery by Mel Fisher. However, quite a bit of the wreck has not been recovered and is being tossed around by Irma this weekend on the floor of the Florida Straits.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma after the damage is cleaned up, I highly recommend you visit Key West because the residents will need your tourism dollars to help rebuild from the storm. And if you go, make sure you visit Mel Fisher’s treasure museum.

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