Florida Treasure Hunters Unearth Trove of Silver Coins From 18th-Century Shipwreck

The find stems from a fleet of 11 Spanish ships that sank off the coast of Florida in 1715

Shipwreck coin next to quarter
An 18th-century Spanish coin next to a modern American quarter Courtesy of Jonah Martinez

Treasure hunters on Florida’s southeastern coast have discovered 22 silver coins dating to a 1715 Spanish shipwreck, reports Denise Sawyer for CBS12 News.

The coins, valued at an estimated $5,000 to $6,000, washed up on Florida’s “Treasure Coast” when a storm system moved across the Gulf of Mexico and over the state on February 22, per Jan Wesner Childs of the Weather Channel. As winds of up to 40 miles per hour swept through the area and 13-foot-tall waves crashed offshore, friends Jonah Martinez, Cole Smith and Jeremy Prouty set out to search the beach for newly unearthed artifacts.

“It takes an element like that from mother nature to move the sand away in such a way that we can get down to the stuff from the 1700s and 1600s,” Martinez tells the Weather Channel. “ … Maybe [just] four times [per] year I can go out and pick up items from that era.”

As Martinez explains to WPTV, major storms carry away much lighter sand and leave heavier metal artifacts in shallow water by the beach, where they can be recovered with the help of a metal detector. Previously, the trio of treasure hunters has discovered belt buckles, pieces of porcelain, cufflinks and cutlery by combing the beach for artifacts or salvaging the wrecks of 11 treasure-laden ships lost in 1715.

The ships sank during a hurricane while carrying goods from Cuba to Spain. Only one vessel in the fleet, a French ship called the Grifón, escaped the storm intact.

Florida Treasure Hunters Unearth Trove of Silver Coins From 18th-Century Shipwreck
A selection of Spanish coins unearthed on Florida's "Treasure Coast" Courtesy of Jonah Martinez

The first modern salvage expedition to the so-called Treasure Fleet took place in 1928. Between 1932 and 1964, according to Jill Nelmark of Hakai magazine, Florida issued more than 50 salvage licenses, including one granted to treasure hunter Kip Wagner.

Wagner recounted his team’s discovery of artifacts worth an estimated $6 million in the January 1965 issue of National Geographic. The group recovered a 50-pound lump of silver “pieces of eight” coins, corroded black on the exterior but still shiny in the middle, as well as gold doubloons, jewelry and weapons.

Today, the Treasure Coast wrecks are a point of contention between treasure hunters like Martinez and marine archaeologists, both of whom have increasingly found themselves caught in contentious court battles centered on the question of who owns underwater heritage.

“Archaeologists regard themselves as protectors of history and the human story, and they see salvors as careless destroyers,” explains Hakai. “Salvors feel they do the hard grunt work of searching for ships for months and years, only to have them stolen out from under them when discovered.”

As USA Today’s Max Chesnes points out, Florida law requires recovery permits for those who hope to explore or recover artifacts on state-owned lands underwater—but this stipulation does not extend to public beaches.

In 2015, Martinez and a different crew of treasure hunters recovered 350 gold coins then valued at about $4.5 million. In total, he estimates that his finds, collected over a period of 24 years, are worth between $13 and $15 million. But Martinez, Smith and Prouty don’t plan on selling the coins they’ve found. Instead, they say they’ll either donate the artifacts to museums or keep them for their personal collections.

“It’s carrying on that tradition and being able to pass that on to future generations,” says Prouty to WPTV.