Florida Divers Dig Up $1 Million in Sunken Treasure

Treasure hunters find 300-year-old coins from a Spanish fleet off the Florida coast

shipwreck map
Photo shows a section of the Florida-Caribbean map. In lower left, an insert section shows part of the Caribbean treasure ground. Note heavy concentration of numbers (each location a shipwreck) off the Louisiana coast, and in the Florida Keys. Bettmann/CORBIS

300 years ago, the flagship of a Spanish treasure fleet sunk beneath the waves off the coast of Florida. Last month, a family of shipwreck divers discovered some of its cargo.

Eric Schmitt and his family were searching for remains of the Tierre Firme fleet when they hit the jackpot, writes Janet J. Lee for National Geographic.

"Typically we excavate empty holes and find beer cans," Schmitt said to Lee. "It was absolutely unreal."

Schmitt stumbled across the sunken treasure just 15 feet below the water’s surface and about 1000 feet from the shore. He was clearing a patch of sand when gold coins started popping out between his fingers. The booty contained 52 gold coins, 40 feet of gold chain and 110 silver coins and buttons — a collection worth over $1 million, Lee writes.

The booty has been at the bottom of the ocean ever since the Tierre Firme fleet hit a hurricane in 1715. 11 of the fleet's ships, which were passing by the Florida coast on their way back to Spain with a shipment of gold and silver, sank. Among them was the fleet's flagship, the Capitana — and the site has been a favorite for treasure hunters ever since.

The Schmitt family was diving under a contract with 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels, a Florida company that holds exclusive rights to searching the wrecks. "I was blown away," Brent Brisben, co-founder of 1715 Fleet-Queens Jewels, told Lee. "I was literally shaking."

It's been a good year for shipwreck hunters. Underwater archaeologists recently identified a sunken ship off the coast of Panama as another Tierre Firme vessel, the Nuestra Señora de Encarnación; a group of ships searching for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 stumbled across a previously undiscovered shipwreck; and just a few months ago, divers discovered "Captain Kidd's lost treasure" in a wreck near Madagascar (though the find has since been questioned).

Brisben and his contractors have been scouring the shipwrecks for treasure since 2010, but he tells Lee this is the biggest find they’ve ever had. Even though the artifacts were recovered weeks ago, Schmitt wanted to delay the announcement of the find to coincide with the 300th anniversary of the shipwreck. In the meantime, Schmitt and his team continue to work the site in hopes of discovering more of the Capitana’s riches.

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