Florida's Shoreline Treasures

By: Doug Kelly

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In the 1700s, 11 Spanish ships wrecked off the Atlantic Coast of Florida, scattering their treasures along the ocean floor. Nowadays, amazing discoveries take place nearly every day along many of the Sunshine State’s east coast beaches.

The whir in my headphones rises in volume, signaling something metallic lies beneath the search coil of the metal detector. I quickly stoop, raise the detector slightly so it’s away from the surface of the ground and employ a scoop that gobbles up a big bite of beach sand. A sweep of the hole reveals no whir, so I know whatever set off the detector lies snuggled in the scoop.

As I dump the sand next to the hole, my fingers sift through it until I grasp a hard flat object about the size of a quarter. Cleaning off more sand, its irregular shape and black tone sets my heart aflutter.

It’s a Spanish reale, an undated silver treasure coin lost nearly 300 years ago.

A Treasure Shower

In 1715, 11 Spanish galleons left Havana Harbor. Their sails picked up the trade winds as they followed the Gulf Stream along the Florida Straits and close the shorelines off Florida’s central east coast. They hoped to remain on a northerly course until ultimately branching off and crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Spain.

None of the ships made it, wrecking and scattering their cargo close to the shorelines from Stuart to Cape Canaveral. Millions of dollars worth of gold and silver coins, jewelry, ship artifacts and other relics were strewn along the east-central coast of Florida. While much has been salvaged from the wrecks, plenty remains – which means there’s plenty for you to find.

Not only do finds large and small continue on a daily basis, you get to keep what you find on the beaches (note that this is on the beaches only; not in the dunes, the water or any state parks) for a few miles north and south of Sebastian Inlet – the epicenter of what’s become known as the Treasure Coast. I found my first reale about two miles south of the inlet just above the beach’s high-tide line, where my metal detector also sniffed out a musketball only a few feet farther away.

While a metal detector can help unearth what’s unseen beneath the surface, simply eyeballing the areas as you walk along the surf can be productive. Look for a metallic gleam, of course – gold “escudo” coins, priceless necklaces and other jewelry have been found by beachcombers – but also note anything dark and misshapen such as oxidized silver or other unusual debris.

 
Where to Look

Treasure salvors still have leases to search the waters, so stay on the beaches beyond the surf line. You also must respect private property whenever encountered between where the beach sand ends (known as the escarpment) to U.S. Highway A1A that parallels the coast.

Look for the high-tide line where the sand is softest and walk along it, as that’s frequently proven to be productive. Sort through the debris and inspect anything unusual. A screened device at the end of a handle can reduce a lot of stooping, but simple garden tools, such as a hand scoop or pail, will suffice.

Another good zone involves the “wet sand” that’s exposed as the surf recedes after each wave. If you notice something worth checking out, keep your eyes fastened on that spot so you don’t lose it and move quickly before the next wave washes in.

When it’s safe to do so, hit the beach soon after a storm’s come through off the ocean. The heavy wave action stirs up the sediment and at times picks up objects, like coins, and tumbles them right onto the beaches.

Look for areas with more shell deposits than others, as this might indicate where strong currents are sweeping across the bottom and depositing loose objects onto the beach sand.

One of my favorite locations involves Vero Beach. I stay at the Vero Beach Holiday Inn due to its proximity to other productive beaches. I also work the beaches just north and south of the hotel, where I found four silver coins on only two visits.

The Right Stuff: Equipment and Etiquette

While eyeballing can and has resulted in thousands of treasure coins being found, you can’t beat having the ability to detect what’s under the sand as well. A metal detector does just that, and they’re easy to operate.

Of course, such equipment varies in capability, with simple metal detectors costing only $100 or so and more sensitive models exceeding $1,000. One of the more popular types for a saltwater environment involves pulse induction detectors, such as my Garrett Infinium. A set of headphones helps block out extraneous noise so you can quickly detect the increased sound level when the detector head sweeps over something metallic.

I’ve found the most success being methodical. I’ll mentally grid an area and work it slowly, taking one step per sweep of the metal detector in front of me as I hold it just above the sand. Depending on the quality of the detector and the buried metal object, I’ve found things as small as a dime 12 inches below the surface. Larger objects or those buried a long time that emanate a metallic “halo” effect can be dug up several feet down.

Using a metal detector is easy once you get the hang of it, and to me and many other enthusiasts it’s just plain fun. I like finding things, and when it’s something of value it’s really a blast. Even though none of the coins I’ve found exceed $100 in value, the fact I found them and perhaps they would have remained hidden in the ground for many more years – or forever – makes it that much more special.

When using a metal detector, it’s important to not only respect private property but also to not make any messes. Always refill any hole you dig so it’s not unsightly and doesn’t serve as a safety hazard for others walking along the beach.

If you do see people sweeping the sand with metal detectors – and you will in many areas on a daily basis – let them move along without disturbance. I sure wish I had a dollar for every time someone’s walked up and asked, “Have you found anything?” While I don’t mind stopping and removing my headphones to converse, particularly with curious kids, some treasure hunters don’t want any disturbances that break their concentration.

Besides the Vero Beach Holiday Inn area, sites where I’ve had the best luck include:

  • Any of the beaches three miles north or south of Sebastian Inlet State Park, in particular, Bonsteel Park north of Sebastian Inlet
  • Wabasso Beach
  • Melbourne Beach
  • Aquarina Beach, about 11 miles south of Melbourne Beach
  • Pepper Park Beach near Fort Pierce
 
Ode to Treasures: McLarty State Treasure Museum

Consider it an absolute must to visit the McLarty State Treasure Museum, a small but fascinating museum on A1A just south of Sebastian Inlet. Besides hearing informal presentations by staff about the 1715 Spanish Plate Fleet and the history of all the treasure that’s been salvaged, they have a movie room that offers a flick showing treasure salvors, various finds and other interesting details.

Glassed showcases display gold and silver coins, glittering jewelry and historical objects such as navigational equipment used in the 17th and 18th centuries found among wrecks. Since it’s finders-keepers, people often come by to show off their finds – and the staff is glad to tell you where recent discoveries have been made.

Park Services Specialist Ed Perry is also glad to provide insights on the area’s treasure history and even advice on improving your odds of finding something.

Though the museum is replete with valuable treasures, it only costs $2 to enter. There’s a short boardwalk behind the building that overlooks the beach where many treasure discoveries have taken place over the years. Some of the galleon cannons were found literally right where the tide breaks onto the beaches.

When I recently visited the museum, the kindly woman at the entrance offered that the hottest site where finds were being made involved Bonsteel Park. Off I headed to the park about three miles north of Sebastian Inlet. After parking, I strode to the beach via the boardwalk. I noted three people metal detecting to the north along the beach, so I sauntered about a quarter mile south before seeing a promising location with lots of debris and shells near the high-tide mark.

After about an hour of sweeping the detector over the sand and turning up nothing but junk, I registered a faint hit. My scoop dug into the soft sand, and a subsequent sweep of the hole with the detector resulted in a stronger tone in my headphones. I sank to my knees and scooped out the sand with a right hand as the left kept the detector aloft.

I grasped a clod of sediment and held it over the hole. Lightly cleaning away caked-on sand and small shells, I broke open the mass. I couldn’t believe it.

Something resembling an old tin container pulverized in my fingers. In a frenzied excitement, I swung the detector back over the hole – another strong signal.

My hand felt something solid and seconds later I clutched two silver reales. The coins possibly were kept in the tin along with perhaps tobacco, and the heavier coins eventually sank beneath the deteriorative tin.

To say I felt overjoyed would be an understatement – I let out a whoop so loud that a nearby seagull walking the beach took to the air. I had once again found Spanish treasure.

If you’ve got gold fever in your heart – and so many of those with an adventurous heart do! – plan on spending an extra day or two on your next vacation looking for real Spanish treasure. Not only might you literally strike gold, the whole family will enjoy the beach experience that much more.

And when you happen upon all the men, women and children waving metal detectors, give them a thumbs-up signal – you just might be wishing me good luck as well.

More By Doug Kelly

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