December 18, 2019

Key West native and consummate professional Don Kincaid first started working with Mel Fisher's 'Treasure Salvors Inc.' in 1971 and is seen here in July of 2015 with a gold bar from the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Kincaid was both a diver and photographer and donated thousands of images to the not-for-profit Mel Fisher Maritime Museum where he was also a longtime board member. (ROB O'NEAL/The Citizen)

Key West native and consummate professional Don Kincaid first started working with Mel Fisher's 'Treasure Salvors Inc.' in 1971 and is seen here in July of 2015 with a gold bar from the 1622 wreck of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha. Kincaid was both a diver and photographer and donated thousands of images to the not-for-profit Mel Fisher Maritime Museum where he was also a longtime board member. (ROB O'NEAL/The Citizen)

The Florida Keys has lost a true waterman. Key West resident Capt. Don Kincaid, 73, died Tuesday in a Miami Veterans Administration hospital.

While serving as both a diver for treasure salvor Mel Fisher and National Geographic photographer, Kincaid took some of the most iconic photos of the salvage work of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, one of the most famous Spanish treasure galleons ever located. The ship sank in a hurricane off the Florida Keys in 1622.

“We have a tremendous legacy through his photos,” said Corey Malcolm, an archaeologist with the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum. “Don lives on. He has left us such a tremendous gift that will live on forever.”

Don Kincaid found the first gold chain while treasure hunting with Mel Fisher at the Atocha site in 1971. (Special to The Citizen)

Malcolm called Kincaid, an U.S. Army veteran, a “true waterman in so many ways.”

“He was a mariner from top to bottom,” fellow Mel Fisher diver Capt. Curtis White said.

Kincaid, White and Malcolm worked the Atocha wreck during the height of the salvage work in the mid-1970s and 1980s.

Kincaid found a key part of the storied Atocha treasure in 1971 when diving for Fisher in the waters off the Marquesas Keys. He grabbed a fist-sized clump of something obviously man-made and heavy for its size. He wasn’t particularly impressed with this “green artifact,” and surfaced to finish lunch on the boat Virgalona. As he ascended, he saw not green, but gold, he later told The Key West Citizen

“The chain seemed like a bridge across time, from my hands to the hands of the 260 people who died on the Atocha,” Kincaid told The Citizen in 2006.

At age 24, years of dreaming, diving shipwrecks and studying archeology came full circle for Kincaid. He went from reading and covering the story of Fisher’s search for the Atocha to being part of the story. He went from observer and photographer to full-blown treasure diver.

Kincaid and his photographs have been featured in books and documentaries on the Atocha. Local marine conservation organizations tapped his expertise when trying to protect the marine life he studied, and being a working photographer, Kincaid rubbed elbows with famous artists, writers and musicians.

Kincaid’s life was filled with adventure and debauchery in the wake of the Atocha find.

“He was the first person I met when I came to the Keys in 1985, which was just after they discovered the bulk of the Atocha treasure in 1985,” Capt. Joe Weatherby said. “In the old days, we partied like the Rolling Stones. We raised a lot of hell together. He was talented and so brilliant. He was just a great guy.”

Later in life, Kincaid owned and operated the snorkel boat the Stars & Stripes, and he was one of the Florida Keys’ biggest advocates of the ocean and the reef. He continued to document the ocean with his trusty camera both above and below the waterline. Kincaid served for years on the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

Until his death, Kincaid served as a maritime historian and documented shipwrecks throughout the Florida Keys and the Caribbean with Malcolm, NOAA, the state of Florida and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

“Don lived a life most mortal men aspire to live,” White said.

A memorial service has yet to be set.

tohara@keysnews.com