The 1733 Spanish Plate or Plata(silver) fleet was part of the system used to convey riches from the new world across the Atlantic to Spain. The money and goods were used by Spain to trade with others in Europe and the rest of the Old World. Using the ocean currents to their advantage to get across the ocean, for over 200 years Spain and others made roughly annual round trips soon after Columbus discovered the New World in 1492.
In 1733, a fleet of about 20 ships left Havana, Cuba for Spain. Sensing an approaching hurricane, the order was given to return to the safety of Havana’s harbor. However, before they could make the trip back of less than 200 miles, the hurricane blew the fleet into the shallow waters of the Keys near Islamorada. The ships grounded in mid July 1733, scattered in approximately 50 miles from Key Largo to Marathon. Most were disabled, a few were re-floated and returned to Havana, and one was able to continue on it’s journey.
The Spaniards were very good at recovery, soon ships arrived from Havana to salvage the treasures. First on the list was the gold and silver, as well as other precious items. Some cargo was salvageable, and it took a lot of effort for this and it took years to complete. Forts were build nearby to protect the wrecks. Salvers typically recovered more than what was listed on the manifests, as smugglers did not want to pay taxes.
Afterward, the ships were left to the elements until the 1930’s when fishermen showed a wreck to a commercial diver, Art McKee. Recreational diving was non-existent at that time. There were no SCUBA tanks or easy ways to stay underwater. Diving involved large suites and hard hats with hoses leading to the surface, where the topside crew was responsible for pumping air to the diver.