Waves crash onto the south Florida coastline, but the motion of the ocean won’t stop treasure-hunters Jonah Martinez and Cole Smith. Instead, they hover their metal detectors over the beach, the early morning air whipping past them as they scan. Then, they hear it: the beeping from their devices, indicating that they’ve found something. And their discovery would prove lucrative…
That morning proved particularly fruitful for Martinez and Smith, the former of whom had spent nearly a quarter-century searching for treasure in southern Florida. This time, he didn’t just find one piece of treasure. Indeed, he uncovered a trove of relics from the past that could potentially pad his bank account with thousands of dollars.
But Martinez said he had different plans for his finds and the many other valuables he had already discovered while waving his metal detector over sections of the Florida coastline. Still, his amazing haul shed light on the literal treasure trove enshrouded by the crashing waves and seas just beyond the state’s famous beaches.
By way of employment, Jonah Martinez collaborated with his clients to bring their custom car and motorcycle visions to life. His friend, Cole Smith, spent working hours as a scuba diving instructor. But both men shared an adventurous out-of-work hobby: they searched 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. During his time treasure-hunting, he had found many notable relics of the past. He had built up a collection that included 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 had, as usual, explored a Floridian stretch of the Atlantic coastline and happened upon a hoard of 300 gold coins, which had a value of $4.5 million at the time of their discovery.
Afterwards, 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 experience than about 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 wasn’t just lip service, either. Martinez usually made a point of not selling the treasure he found; he said he didn’t partake in his hobby for a profit. Instead, he kept most of the goods for his personal collection. Otherwise, he shared his finds with others or donated them to museums.
The same went for Martinez’s later treasure-hunting jaunts, too. In summer 2017 he spoke to website TCPalm about that year’s exploits, which had yielded comparatively meager returns. The weather played a huge part in whether or not the ocean’s hidden relics would wash ashore, and he 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 experienced 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 – this time, with his friend, Smith. The pair took their metal detectors and headed to Wabasso Beach, where cerulean waters hide countless age-old relics of the past. That’s because it 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 the Treasure Coast as such in that year, particularly. In 1961 people began to find age-old riches hidden in the waters just off of these Floridian counties. Soon enough, experts knew exactly where these relics had come from: 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. 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: an horrific hurricane that wrecked their vessels. One boat chartered by a French crew made it through the storm, but 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. As such, the ill-fated journey is still considered one of history’s worst disasters at sea. And evidence of it still lingers along the Florida coastline, where pieces of the ships still remain.
The ships seemed to have sunk just 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 shipwreck that have been found since. The wrecks’ survivors had first tried to recover some of the lost riches, but to no avail. Surprisingly, these precious goods then sat largely forgotten on the seafloor for two-and-a-half centuries before they started to re-emerge.
The single ship that 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.
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. However, the crew couldn’t do as it had been bid: the churning waters threatened to engulf them, too.
When the Spanish fleet sank, it was a big news story. Ships from all over descended on the area as they heard the story of a massive fortune hidden in Atlantic waters. However, no one ever found 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. It all started in the 1950s, when hurricane winds whipped sand from the sand dunes lining the Sebastian Inlet. As they 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. 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 and he began to uncover other treasures, as well as relics of the crew that survived the hurricane. He then founded a group known as the Real Eight Company, which, together, 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. 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, too.
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 lived in Port Saint Lucie, while his scuba-diving teacher friend had 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.
During their sweeps, the chirruping sound 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 one from obscurity, eventually finding they had discovered 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 salt water.”
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. However, at the time Martinez reiterated the fact 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. 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. As such, the pair didn’t need any paperwork filed before their morning metal-detecting session, and none of their finds belonged 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 had to offer. He told newspaper 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 wasn’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 newspaper, “Not everyone knows why it’s called the Treasure Coast. This is why.”
And, for the time being, Martinez hoped 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 had plans to share some of his incredible finds with friends and fellow users of the social media site. He wrote in reference to 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.