Monday, November 08, 2004


Treasure hunters strike gold at battered beaches


Florida Today
By Linda Jump

WABASSO BEACH-- Greg Bounds rode out Hurricane Jeanne in a truck at a friend's beachside home, just to be first on the sand to search for treasure.

Joel Ruth checks some of the 15th- and 16th-century
Spanish coins found on the beach after Hurricane
Jeanne passed through Brevard and Indian River counties.
Image © 2004, Malcolm Denemark, FLORIDA TODAY

The swashbuckling of the Sebastian subcontractor with Mel Fisher Treasure Museum paid off, and he found five gold coins dating from 1696 to 1714 near Wabasso Beach.

"I got up really, really early and hunted like hell," Bounds said. "Hurricanes take the sand down to the level where the coins are."

While beach owners evacuated or cursed their home's destruction, professional and amateur treasure hunters with metal detectors ignored wind and rain for the bounty of the famed 1715 Spanish fleet.

Many believe the 10 to 12 galleons carried thousands of jewels and precious coins when they sank -- during a hurricane -- off the Treasure Coast centuries ago. Much has never been recovered.

Between Fort Pierce and Port Canaveral, the dozens of beachcombers' efforts during and after the hurricanes reportedly have produced dozens of gold coins, hundreds of silver coins and jewelry that includes diamond and emerald rings and gold chains.

It's difficult to know for sure how much they've found because many hoard the treasure to keep government from getting its share.

Joel Ruth holds a magnifying glass over some
of the 15th- and 16th-century Spanish coins,
some with clearly marked dates, that he found
on the beach after Hurricane Jeanne.
Image © 2004, Malcolm Denemark, FLORIDA TODAY

"People are afraid of the (Internal Revenue Service) and the state taking it away," admits Mitch King of Sebastian, vice president of the Treasure Coast Archeological Society.

It was hurricanes that sank the ships in 1715, and hurricanes that cut short the diving season for state-permitted ocean salvagers this treasure-hunting season, which traditionally begins May 1 and ends by the first of November.
But it also was the swirling winds that turned the beach into a treasure hunters' paradise this fall.

Experts believe the shipwrecks' survivors may have stashed some of the loot in the dunes, and that later salvagers may have buried treasure to keep it from pirates. The survivors' camp was behind the present McLarty Treasure Museum, south of the Sebastian Inlet State Recreation Center.

That was enough to make otherwise sensible people brave the enduring winds of a hurricane to see what Mother Nature exposed.

"The storms washed the dunes away to what it was like in 1715," said King.

For the divers, the verdict is out on the effects of the storms, beyond shortening the season. Underwater archeologist Rob Westrick said visibility was poor and diving was dangerous.

But he and others are optimistic about next year.

"Things are going to be changed," Westrick said "We found a visible cannon in the water three years ago, and by the next year, it was covered by three feet of sand."

This season, it resurfaced.

Hurricane Jeanne was at least as generous to treasure hunting as the 1984 Thanksgiving hurricane. In one weekend then, more than 2,000 silver coins and at least 16 gold coins were found on Corrigan's Beach north of Vero.

"If we could take a bulldozer to those sites now, we could fill our pockets with coins and jewelry." said John Brandon of Fort Pierce, a treasure hunter since age 13. "But we can't do that."

State and federal laws prohibit digging in dunes. But hurricane and nor'easter winds scour them enough to give up 300-year-old treasures.

In January 1961, after Hurricane Donna in the fall, the late treasure legend Kip Wagner and crew recovered more than 2,000 coins in a day behind the McLarty Museum. Months later, six feet of sand covered the area.

That find sparked modern-day treasure fever, fueled by new finds each season.

"When we reopened after the storm (this year), there were 30 people going up and down the beach with metal detectors," said Ed Perry, parks services specialist.

Many who come into the museum of 1715 artifacts took vacations to take advantage of the current conditions.
Not all hurricanes expose treasure. But the winds of Jeanne blew north and west, which makes them tear at dunes.
Joel Ruth of Indialantic found more than 200 pieces of eight -- but no gold -- on a beach in south Brevard. He won't say exactly where.

"I've been watching that site for 20 years," he said. "It's not a popular beach. You have to climb through the woods."
Ruth almost went home after unsucessfully searching two other spots.

"I got roofing nails in my tires," he said. "I hadn't eaten and only brought a bottle of water with me; I was tired and not happy."

After shimmying down a collapsed palm tree over a 17-foot cliff to the beach, Ruth said he saw a coin and turned on his metal detector.

"I grabbed it and then every foot it was -- bam, bam, -- another hit," he said. "There were so many, I didn't dig but took the easy ones."

Four hours later, his batteries were dying, the incoming surf slammed his knees and it was getting dark enough to put the hurricane curfew into effect. The next day, his 52nd birthday, he found nothing.

"The window of opportunity after a storm is small," Ruth said. "Now the rest are buried again."

He and treasure experts say the coins are worth at least $40,000.

Robert Weller of Lake Worth, a salvager since 1960, said spring -- when diving conditions improve again -- likely will bring out a rush of Mel Fisher subcontractors like him.

"The hurricane would knock down the worm rock, the soft stuff that sea worms build up that covers everything," he said. "There are acres and acres out there covered and not seen in 10-15 years."

Taffi Fisher Abt, daughter of the late treasure hunter Fisher and museum director, agreed.

"We're optimistic about next season," she said. "This wasn't a banner year, but we had some nice finds," including silver forks and a cross that are on display at the Sebastian museum.

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