Mark O’Donoghue and his partner are ambling along their local beach. It’s a familiar Floridian scene – waves lapping at the shore, footsteps imprinting into the soft earth. Then a strange structure coming out of the ground stops the couple dead in their tracks. The duo have discovered some sort of curious contraption, all jagged wood and metal. And in a remarkable stroke of luck, it’s just re-emerged after centuries concealed beneath the sand.
Where was O’Donoghue when he made this incredible find? Well, as a native of St. Augustine, Florida, he was strolling the picturesque shoreline of Crescent Beach in St. John’s County. It’s a seaside spot the man and his wife know well – or so they thought. That was until November 2020, when the sand unveiled its subterranean secret.
Peering at the odd vision before him, O’Donoghue spotted prongs made of metal and wood. There was some timber there as well. And while he and his wife eventually went back to their home, the discovery still stuck in O’Donoghue’s mind. What had they just uncovered? And why was the huge structure only visible now?
Naturally, O’Donoghue needed answers. So, he rocked up to Crescent Beach again the following day, eager to have another look at the strange shape. But the mystery would only deepen with this second sighting. You see, only hours on from that first trip to the shore, the unidentified object appeared to now be even further out of the sand. Was it emerging of its own accord?
Thankfully, buried objects don’t just rise from the ground without some form of assistance. And with that in mind, you’re probably wondering exactly what happened. Well, it’s believed that Hurricane Eta – which hit the north of Florida in November 2020 – may have played a significant role in the structure’s reappearance.
The storm – which started as a hurricane – also affected Central America and Cuba before hitting Florida. It actually battered the state on two separate occasions, as the weather system briefly passed over the Gulf of Mexico before eventually coming back. Talk about bad luck!
Yes, Eta dealt Florida a cruel hand. In St. Augustine, for instance, the tumultuous weather caused both flooding and higher tides than usual. Perhaps, then, a storm-stricken sea was responsible for O’Donoghue’s finding on Crescent Beach. Other factors could’ve contributed, too.
You see, Eta isn’t the only storm to have hit Florida in recent years. Hurricane Matthew made landfall back in 2016, while Hurricane Irma followed less than 12 months later. It was a horrible run for the Sunshine State, and it’s thought that many local beaches have suffered as a result of these natural disasters.
This erosion of Florida’s beaches has also had a major knock-on effect. In 2020 Chuck Meide – who works with the St. Augustine Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program – told The New York Times that any further “nor’easter” storms could now cause even more damage to the state. Sadly, flooding may become a bigger problem if the shores are lower than before.
And Meide provided a rather striking example of this destruction when speaking to the newspaper. Back in 2005, he noted, Crescent Beach’s dunes had measured up at roughly 12 feet. Only a decade and a half on, however, the sand had been worn down to sea level. That’s an eye-opening difference, wouldn’t you agree?
But the erosion can’t be just chalked up to the hurricanes that have hit Florida in the past. Climate change looks to have had a real effect, too. And the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has provided some truly shocking statistics about this problem.
In a 2016 document, the EPA claimed that Florida’s climate has increased in temperature by more than 1 ℉ over the last 100 years. But that seemingly small change has real consequences. The agency revealed, you see, that sea levels in the area have gone up roughly an inch every ten years. And it only gets worse. Apparently, Crescent Beach and other sandy shores like it may cease to exist altogether if nothing is done to preserve them.
If this current trajectory of decline carries on, then, it could lead to even higher sea levels in Florida. They may grow by up to four feet over the next century, the EPA claims. And if that should happen, more erosion and flooding will be on the cards. It’s a pretty worrying situation – and one that is devastatingly visible in the Sunshine State.
Take O’Donoghue’s discovery on Crescent Beach, for example. Some believe that it was rapid erosion triggered by Hurricane Eta that unveiled the sunken structure. And Don Resio, a professor of ocean engineering at the University of North Florida, certainly seems to be of that opinion. In fact, he told The New York Times that Eta was “the perfect storm for erosion.”
And Resio isn’t alone in linking extreme weather events to this rapid coastal wear and tear. His concerns are shared by Katie Nguyen, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Jacksonville, Florida. She told The New York Times that hurricanes are responsible for “several rounds of erosion-causing events along the northeast Florida Atlantic coast.”
But you may be wondering: what did the erosion actually unveil on Crescent Beach? Well, O’Donoghue was convinced that he’d found remnants of an old ship. This realization then led him to get in touch with St. Augustine’s Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program (LAMP). And in November 2020 the lucky guy filled the world in on his momentous discovery during an interview with Florida’s Action News Jax.
O’Donoghue said, “I just saw some timbers that were uncovered by erosion on the sand on the beach. [On] Sunday, more of it was exposed, so then I went ahead and contacted Chuck Meide at LAMP. And he sent somebody out, and right away I sent him pictures and he said, ‘Yeah! That’s a shipwreck.’”
Meide and his colleagues then got to work fairly quickly, turning up to view the wreckage just a day after O’Donoghue’s second visit to the beach. Then the team analyzed any timber and metal protruding from the sand, snapping photographs as they progressed. But this wasn’t LAMP’s first shipwreck investigation – far from it, in fact.
You see, LAMP exists for situations just like this one. The program even refers to itself on its Facebook page as the “research arm” of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum. So, folks like Meide are always on the look-out for local finds – as well as others from outside the community. And sometimes they help to unearth some true gems.
The Crescent Beach wreckage definitely falls into that category, too. Yes, O’Donoghue’s discovery turned out to be a real jewel of Floridian history. The LAMP team initially struggled to pinpoint its precise age, although they eventually surmised that the boat was from the 19th century. And Meide explained why in a press release on the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum’s website.
Meide said, “Everything we’ve seen on [the ship] so far fits the hypothesis [that it’s from the 19th century]: wooden planking, wood timbers, iron fasteners. They look quite similar to other ships from the 1800s that we have seen.” And he gave even more detail while speaking to Action News Jax.
“It’s most likely that a ship that we find on our coast was probably a merchant ship,” Meide explained. “So, it was probably a cargo ship – carrying goods – again in the 1800s. Think of [it] like a Walmart semi-truck. A ship that was carrying a bunch of… could be hardware, could be flour, could be all kinds of different commodities.”
From what the group could tell, the ship had been constructed in one of three places: either America, the United Kingdom or Canada. How did they come to that conclusion? It was apparently all down to the measurements, as the wood was outlined in inches and feet. Presumably, then, the vessel had been constructed in a nation that uses imperial units rather than metric.
But the conditions on Crescent Beach threatened to put the analysis of the ship in jeopardy. Owing to the tide, Meide and his team couldn’t focus on any given section of the wreckage for a prolonged period. Instead, they just had to look at what the sand uncovered. The group first inspected buried timbers measuring up to 20 feet. This was good news, as just 24 hours beforehand they’d only had five feet or so to work with. Then, by the end of the month, the wreck had disappeared completely under the shore again.
Mind you, Meide had an idea in place to see the true scale of the ship. According to The New York Times, he and his colleagues planned to construct a 3D image of the vessel from the information they’d gathered. As far as the maritime archaeologist was concerned, that was the next best thing to viewing the real McCoy.
Meide told the newspaper, “We’ll never see the wreck all open at the same time here on the beach, but we will on our computer screen.” Still, with that said, did the LAMP team have any suggestions as to which ship they’d been analyzing? Or could they tell us why it had been sentenced to such a cruel fate beneath the sand?
Well, in the end, the experts’ investigations pointed them in one direction. “It’s built solid enough to be a lumber vessel,” Meide revealed. “[It] has the right fastenings to be a ship from the 1800s and the right timbers for a ship of the 1800s. The Caroline Eddy is our prime suspect.” And, luckily, we do know a bit about that boat. Documentation proves that it was first constructed back in 1862, for instance. It also apparently played a role in the Civil War.
Then, in the postbellum period, the Caroline Eddy was bought by a trader – which makes some of Meide’s previous comments seem more legit. But what happened from there? And how did the vessel end up on the Florida beach? Luckily, the Fort Matanzas National Monument Facebook page had answers.
The Monument’s social media team posted on the site, “In late August 1880 the Caroline Eddy left Fernandina bound for New York with a cargo of lumber. She sailed into a hurricane, was driven south and went ashore near Matanzas. Her crew survived after clinging to the rigging for two days and a night.” Sounds intense!
And the Caroline Eddy’s captain, George W. Warren, had shared his account of the wreck once he was safely back on dry land. He recalled to The Memphis Daily Appeal, “It was a sea like a mountain. It was a pretty big-sized sea – a bigger one than I care to see again.” But while this is an incredible story, we can’t forget one thing.
Basically, the evidence that Meide and his team uncovered only suggested that the wreckage is that of the Caroline Eddy. Beyond the measurements and materials, there wasn’t any cargo that could be used to confirm its identity. Yet while that may have been a setback to the researchers, there were still other avenues to explore in solving the mystery.
The LAMP group have sent off samples of the wreck for isotope analysis, for instance. Then, when that’s done, they’ll be able to confirm if the wood originates from Maine – the birthplace of the Caroline Eddy – or somewhere else. It’s an unapologetically technical process, and Meide provided an interesting comparison when describing the work.
Meide told The New York Times, “It’s kind of like this is a crime scene investigation. We are piecing together all of these facts that we can identify from all our forensic tests.” That’d make for an intriguing episode of CSI! As we alluded to earlier, though, this wasn’t the group’s first rodeo when it comes to shipwrecks.
Another notable project began back in 2015, when members of LAMP uncovered a buried ship on a different St. Augustine beach. This find was dubbed the “Anniversary Wreck,” as the city was celebrating its 450th birthday that year. And from then until the end of the decade, Meide and company slowly picked away at the mystery.
Unlike the wreck on Crescent Beach, though, there was underwater cargo to be found here. Doorknobs, bricks, irons, tacks, locks, stone blocks and cauldrons were all salvaged from the deep. Remnants of a Wedgwood dinner plate were uncovered, too, and this gave the LAMP team a clue as to the ship’s age. You see, that piece of crockery was reportedly manufactured from the mid 18th century in England.
Keeping that in mind, it’s thought that the Anniversary Wreck could be one of St. Augustine’s earliest “merchant shipwrecks.” What an impressive discovery! Meide certainly appeared to be excited with the find as he spoke to The Florida Times-Union in 2019. And one thing in particular really interested him.
Meide explained, “It gives us a great insight into consumer behavior here in St. Augustine.” He added, “[It shows] what it was like to be someone living in St. Augustine at this time period – through what they bought. In the future, someone will probably want to look through Amazon records and see what people were buying. This is kind of like that.”
“This is like finding a Walmart truck wrecked and preserved, hundreds of years in the future,” Meide added. “This is the stuff we know was coming into St. Augustine. This, presumably, was the stuff people asked for and wanted and that merchants knew they could sell.”
And there may be more to come in the future. Yes, as the beaches in Florida continue to wear away, the Anniversary Wreck and the Crescent Beach remains could be joined by the remnants of further ships. Deep-sea swimmer Steven D. Singer told The New York Times that close to 4,000 old sunken boats have been recorded on Florida’s coastline.
If that number goes up in the next few years, you can be sure that LAMP will be hard at work. And perhaps more people should start scanning their local coastlines just like O’Donoghue did on Crescent Beach. After all, there are plenty of treasures out there waiting to be found. As Meide told The New York Times, “There’s a lot of buried history on our beaches and offshore.”
And Meide’s not lying about the hidden riches of the Sunshine State’s coastline. Just ask treasure hunters Jonah Martinez and Cole Smith. The intrepid pair were out on an early-morning metal-detecting trip in south Florida when their devices started to beep. So the pair set to work digging… And before long, the lucky duo had uncovered a trove of relics worth a truly staggering sum.
Yes, it’s safe to say that the morning proved particularly fruitful for Martinez and Smith. And while Martinez had spent nearly a quarter-century searching for treasure in southern Florida, he’d never come across a haul quite like this. For this time, he didn’t just find one piece of treasure. In fact, he’d uncovered a boatload.
But Martinez is perhaps not your usual treasure hunter. After all, he says he has different plans for the many valuables he discovers while waving his metal detector over sections of the Florida coastline. Still, this particular haul shed light on a literal treasure trove enshrouded by the crashing waves and seas just beyond the state’s famous beaches.
Jonah Martinez is only a treasure hunter in his spare time, mind you. By way of employment, he collaborates with his clients to bring their custom car and motorcycle visions to life. And his friend Cole Smith spends his working hours as a scuba diving instructor. But both men share an adventurous out-of-work hobby: they search for treasure along the Florida coastline with the help of metal detectors.
Martinez, for one, had put nearly a quarter-century into his hobby by the spring of 2020. And during his time treasure hunting, he had found many notable relics of the past. In fact, he has built up a collection that includes pieces of porcelain, daggers, belt buckles, flatware, housewares and even clothes once worn by noblemen.
Some of Martinez’s past finds had made headlines, too. For instance, in 2015 he had joined a crew of fellow treasure hunters who, as usual, explored a Floridian stretch of the Atlantic coastline. This time, though, the group happened upon a hoard of 300 gold coins, which had a value of $4.5 million at the time of their discovery.
Afterward, Martinez had spoken at a press conference about the crew’s incredible discovery. According to newspaper Florida Today, he re-told the story of the expedition with misty eyes, explaining that he had been the one to choose their fruitful treasure-hunting location. He said, “To find something like that, it’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”
At the same press conference – attended by approximately 100 people – Martinez described himself and his fellow treasure hunters as “hard-core metal detectorists.” He also reiterated that their missions were more about the adventure than the relics they found. He said, “The real treasure is the experience that we all share every summer. The stories, they’ll last forever.”
And that statement isn’t just lip service, either. Martinez usually makes a point of not selling the treasure he found; he doesn’t partake in his hobby for a profit. Instead, he says, he keeps most of the goods for his collection. Otherwise, he shares his finds with others or donates them to museums.
The same went for Martinez’s later treasure-hunting jaunts, too. In summer 2017, for instance, he spoke to website TCPalm about that year’s exploits, which had yielded comparatively meager returns. The weather plays a huge role in helping the ocean’s hidden relics wash ashore, and Martinez and his fellow searchers had little luck on that front.
At that time, Martinez admitted, “It has been one of the worst summers weather-wise that we’ve ever experienced.” However, the metal-detector-toting explorer knew the tide would turn – literally and figuratively. He said, “We’re getting through it day by day, and we’re working in an area where we found items before, so we’re optimistic.”
The change Martinez sought would come in 2020. So this time he and his friend Smith took their metal detectors and headed to Wabasso Beach, where cerulean waters hide countless age-old relics of the past. In fact, this area makes up part of Florida’s beachside border that’s known as the Treasure Coast.
The Treasure Coast spans across four Floridian counties: St Lucie, Martin, Palm Beach and Indian River, the last of which includes Wabasso Beach. And although this particular stretch of coastline has long been inhabited, it took decades for it to earn its nickname. John J. Schumann Jr. and Harry J. Schultz, who worked for the Vero Beach Press Journal newspaper, coined the name in 1961.
And they had good reason for naming it the Treasure Coast in that year. In 1961, you see, people began to find age-old riches hidden in the waters just off of these Floridian counties. Soon enough, experts knew that these relics had arrived as a result of an ill-fated journey by the Spanish in the early 18th century.
Specifically, the Spanish had packed up a dozen ships in Havana, Cuba, with all of their New World riches. So they filled the vessels with gold, silver and sparkling jewels valued at 14 million pesos and sent them off to their home country, thousands of miles away.
The entire fleet would never make it to its destination, though. The ships set sail on July 24, 1715, and, within a week, the sailors faced a nightmare at sea: a horrific hurricane that wrecked their vessels. Only one boat chartered by a French crew made it through the storm. The rest of the Spanish ships succumbed to the raging waters.
The 11 sunken ships took 700 sailors with them as well as all 14 million pesos worth of jewels and precious metals. The ill-fated journey is considered one of history’s worst disasters at sea. And evidence of it lingers along the Florida coastline, where pieces of the ships still remain.
The ships seemed to have sunk near modern-day Vero Beach, which sits within Indian River County. And yet remnants of the vessels have turned up along a 40-mile range of coastline, from Fort Pierce in St. Lucie County, all the way down to Cape Canaveral in Brevard County – which isn’t even part of the self-styled Treasure Coast.
Of course, the name “Treasure Coast” has more to do with the riches themselves than the shards of shipwrecks that have been found since. It seems that the wrecks’ survivors had first tried to recover some of the lost treasure but to no avail. Then, perhaps surprisingly, these precious goods sat largely forgotten on the seafloor for two and a half centuries before they started to re-emerge.
What about the French crew who survived the storm? Well, that single ship didn’t sink on the voyage from Havana got lucky. Its crew realized before it was too late that the seas would be treacherous that day. So they changed directions and washed ashore in Florida, where they set up camp and tried their best to survive the storm.
Then the admiral in charge, Don Francisco Salmon, sent some of his sailors inland in search of people to help them. Others went back out to sea to try and pluck the precious metals and jewels that the other ships had lost at sea, too. But the crew couldn’t manage it: the churning waters threatened to engulf them.
They weren’t the only ones to fail to find the treasure, either. When the Spanish fleet sank, you see, it was a big news story. And ships from all over descended on the area as crews heard the stories of a massive fortune hidden in Atlantic waters. However, no one ever discovered it, and it seems that the rumor died down as time went on.
It would take another major storm for some of the Treasure Coast’s secrets to resurface, in fact. It all started in the 1950s, when hurricane winds whipped sand from the dunes lining the Sebastian Inlet. And as the sands shifted, they revealed hidden pieces of a shipwreck, which clued people into the fact that there might be more relics hidden in the area.
A local named Kip Wagner then found an actual piece of treasure from one of the sunken ships. In fact, he uncovered a piece of eight – a silver coin also known as a Spanish dollar or peso. The first pieces of eight were minted at the end of the 15th century, and the currency remained in use in some parts of Asia and North America until the 19th century.
It soon became clear that Wagner’s piece of eight had come from the sunken ships. He then uncovered other treasures as well as relics of the crew that had survived the hurricane. Wagner subsequently founded a group known as the Real Eight Company, which sought out more of the treasures hidden along this stretch of Florida’s coastline.
And that’s where Schumann and Schultz came in. These two members of the press decided to rebrand their local beaches as the Treasure Coast. It made sense, considering more and more treasure hunters had flocked to the area in the hope that they, too, could uncover the riches left to sink along with the 11 Spanish ships.
Calling the area Treasure Coast had even more of an impact, too. Soon enough, the beaches became a hotspot for scuba divers and beachcombers who wanted their chance to find some of the treasure. It continues to be a summer destination for adventurers in search of riches as well.
In Martinez and Smith’s case, they were lucky: both men called Florida their home, which made it easier for them to search for treasure in and out of the tourist season. According to their Facebook profiles, the former lives in Port Saint Lucie, while his scuba-diving teacher friend has his base in Fort Lauderdale.
Martinez and Smith relied on metal detectors to point them to any treasure that might be lingering along the coast on February 28, 2020 – the day of their fateful expedition. The pair traversed Wabasso Beach in the early morning, undeterred by chilly temperatures or the unending crashing of waves that flooded their path.
As the pair swept, the chirruping sounds of their devices alerted the men to potential finds. Martinez told TV channel CBS12, “Our metal detectors were catching target after target.” The men then plucked each discovery from obscurity, eventually finding they had found nearly two dozen relics of the famous Treasure Coast shipwreck.
Martinez confirmed to the news outlet, “We found 22 beautiful Spanish coins from the 1715 treasure shipwreck that were all hammer-struck.” With an evaluative method of his own, Smith seemed to verify the age-old currency’s time spent underwater. He said, “You can lick it and taste the saltwater.”
Better yet, the coins came with a pretty hefty resale price tag. Smith and Martinez could have likely raked in between $5,000 and $6,000 for the 22 coins they found, in fact. However, Martinez reiterated that neither he nor his partner-in-discovery had adopted their hobby for the money.
If he wanted, though, he could profit from finding the more-than-300-year-old currency, as he had discovered the coins on a public beach. Instead, Martinez claimed, “This is our history out here. We are not trying to profit out here, we are just collecting pieces of history. That’s cool if you ask me.”
Florida law stipulates that treasure hunters at sea have to have a permit before they can set off on the hunt for relics hidden in the state-owned coastal area. So anything found on state property tends to get split profit-wise between Florida and the treasure hunters. When Martinez and company found $4.5 million worth of treasure in 2015, for instance, the state could keep up to 20 percent of the proceeds from their haul.
In the 2020 case, though, Martinez and Smith got lucky. Although treasure in coastal waters falls under state jurisdiction, once those items wash up on the beaches – as they had in this case – they become part of the public domain. So the pair didn’t need any paperwork filed before their morning metal-detecting session – and none of their finds belong to the state.
Still, as previously mentioned, those beachcombing sessions were apparently what it was all about for Martinez – not the price tag on the coins, nor who gets what when the search is over. To that end, he keeps working to improve his skills so he can find even more of what the Florida coast has to offer. He told USA Today, “I know how to read the beach, and I’m always trying to increase my odds of finding something.”
On top of that, Martinez promised to leave the 22 coins as they were when he found them; he wouldn’t polish or otherwise try to improve their appearance. It isn’t about aesthetics for him, after all. He told TCPalm, “It’s a passion. It’s the thrill of the hunt that I love.”
Martinez also knew that his find, along with his past and future missions to uncover his local beaches’ hidden artifacts, would draw more attention to the area and its secrets. He told the New York Post, “Not everyone knows why it’s called the Treasure Coast. This is why.”
And, for the time being, Martinez hopes to be the one behind the headline-grabbing finds along Florida’s Treasure Coast. He told CBS12, “You don’t know what you’re going to find. We love to be the guys who find treasure that [was] lost at sea more than 300 years ago.”
According to Martinez’s Facebook profile, he has plans to share some of his incredible finds with friends and fellow users of the social media site. He wrote about his coins, “It’s time to let go of my little [buddies]. Friends have been asking me for a while now about buying some nice coins.” So the treasure hunter has put a few on the market, after all, to share the history – and, quite literally, the wealth.