In the region where central Florida touches the Atlantic, rich discoveries abound in many forms.
By Kirk W. House
I grip the thick bar of gold, and it’s greasy. It feels somewhat smooth but is irregular and slightly misshapen “” no doubt from old casting methods, if not from its three-century soak in salt water. I heft it up (it’s heavy) and turn it over, peering at a mark stamped upon it long ago in the name of the King of Spain. Wistfully I set it down and ease my hand back out through the aperture where it is displayed. No one will salvage this gold ever again.
In 1715 nearly a dozen ships of a Spanish treasure fleet smashed aground in a hurricane on the Atlantic coast of Florida. The ships’ hulls were ripped and their cargoes spilled out beneath the waves in a 25-mile stretch of the shoreline, from Sebastian Inlet on the north past Fort Pierce Inlet to the south. Modern-day divers and beachcombers still turn up the relics. Welcome to Florida’s Treasure Coast.
Take a little time with all the “travel treasure sites” you can visit, without even getting your feet wet (unless you want to)! You can access the area via Interstate 95, which runs along its western edge, and then turn eastward to U.S. 1 and State Route A1A, which journeys through the barrier islands. From Florida’s Turnpike, you can take State Route 60 straight to Vero Beach.
Sebastian Treasure Museums
“Today’s the day!” are the words beneath a bust depicting the late Mel Fisher, fabled treasure hunter who salvaged sunken gold for years. Those words were Fisher’s motto each day as he and his crew searched for treasure. On many days, his prediction came true. Plan to visit the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum and Conservation Laboratory, where, according to director Taffi Fisher Abt, Mel’s daughter, every visitor should have a gold coin placed into his or her hands. It’s an experience, I confess, that tickled me immensely. Fondling the gold doubloon, studying the lion of Leon and the castle of Aragon stamped into it, and recognizing that it was minted in Lima, Peru, almost 300 years ago sent my imagination into overdrive.
Mel Fisher’s Museum in Sebastian displays the results of years of salvage from shipwrecks that took mankind centuries to locate. A few items, such as a silver plate, have Central American designs, but most pieces show that they were made with a European mother country in mind. Years ago in Europe, gold coins were taxed, but jewelry was not. So, clever folks invented long, heavy gold chains, which were draped around a bride and groom at wedding ceremonies and then subsequently disassembled for more practical uses.
The museum also gives visitors a view of the underwater operations needed to find such treasure, not to mention the ordinary items recovered from the sea floor. And, of course, you can heft that 5-pound ingot of Peruvian gold. If you ask the staff how much it weighs, though, they’ll tell you, “About $250,000.”
The Mel Fisher Treasure Museum in Sebastian is open daily; admission is $6.50 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $2 for children. Phone (772) 589-9875 for more information or visit www.melfisher.com.
Sebastian Inlet State Park is home to another treasure museum. It is located across the inlet, on the seaboard side of Orchid Island. The McLarty Treasure Museum is operated by the state of Florida, which has taken the time-honored “royal fifth” of all ship salvage. McLarty emphasizes the history and context of the 11 Spanish galleons that wrecked in 1715 in the midst of a violent storm. Dishes, silverware, tools, and everything else that kept a seafaring convoy going are on display.
Approximately 1,500 seamen survived the shipwrecks, and local Indians helped them once they came aground. The sailors’ main camp was near the McLarty museum, and dioramas depict the Spaniards’ own 18th-century salvage work, which took place there. The salvage crew had to compete with British sailors and pirates who rushed to the site, too.
Ed Perry, parks service specialist at the McLarty Treasure Museum, noted that gold is still found in the area today. “I had a fellow in here a couple of weeks ago,” he said. “I told him, ‘You’ve got a rare piece there “” a 1714 Imperial 8-escudo real, minted in Mexico City.’ Then I had a woman who took a metal detector out onto the beach. It quit about a mile down, but she kept walking, and picked up a lovely piece of K’ang Hsi porcelain.” You never know what you will find. In addition to hauling Inca gold and Aztec silver, the “plate fleet” of ships carried Oriental goods sent across the Pacific Ocean and transported across Mexico.
The McLarty Treasure Museum is open daily, and admission is $1 per person. Children under age 6 are admitted free. Sebastian Inlet State Park also offers a fishing museum; boat rentals; and a variety of critters, such as seabirds, wading birds, and in summer, egg-laying sea turtles. It’s a fine place to explore, whether you find treasure or not.
The Nature Of Barrier Islands
The barrier islands of the Treasure Coast are never more than a mile or two wide. Offshore the Atlantic Ocean roils forever onto the beach. Pelicans sail in formation along the wind, gliding for miles with never a flap to their wings. Inshore is the Indian River, not exactly a river, but a lagoon or narrow arm of the sea, salty and tidal.
Birds and beachfront stretch for miles on both sides of the barrier islands, which provide plenty of places for swimming or for nature study. Climate and vegetation are not-quite-tropical, as we found by pulling in near Vero Beach at the Environmental Learning Center. The center encompasses 51 acres on Wabasso Island in the Indian River Lagoon. Wandering the boardwalks through salt marsh and mangrove forest, or stepping along the gravel path through high-ground hammock, you can get acquainted with butterflies, ospreys, black vultures, and, of course, more pelicans. The center is open Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is free; phone (772) 589-5050 or visit www.elcweb.org for more information.
The habitat and wildlife near Wabasso Island are so outstanding that President Theodore Roosevelt established the first National Wildlife Refuge within sight of it, on Pelican Island.
Our next treasure site is the island portion of Vero Beach. The town bustles with visitors to its beaches, hotels, clothing stores, beach shops, and restaurants. Try lunch at Waldo’s, built out of driftwood back in the 1920s by eccentric Waldo Sexton. You can eat inside under the porch, or outside on the deck by the pool overlooking the beach. In either location, you can hear the surf and the shriek of gulls as the breeze whooshes through the open windows and breezeway.
After conch chowder (good helpings, but you always want more), grilled snapper, and excellent key lime pie, we wandered through the restaurant, taking in a rough, blackened cannon; brightly colored tile; and other treasures that were disgorged by the sea and joyously seized on by Waldo Sexton.
Stepping down to the ocean beach, we strolled a mile southward, playing tag with the surf, skipping from warm, dry sand to sand that’s cold and wet, mimicking the sandpipers. We stepped around surf casters and ducked under kite strings. Royal terns stood in little flocks, their feathery crowns ruffling in the breeze as they stared blearily out to sea.
Perhaps you will encounter, as we did, an open-air art show in little Humiston Park. Or, you may become puzzled at sunset by a constant squawking. Closer and closer we came to the sound, until at last we spotted the culprits flitting through the treetops: green parakeets (actually parrots), a South American species imported as pets. So many have escaped or have been released over the years that they’ve established themselves in a new home.
The Vero Beach Museum of Art, on the lagoon side of town, offers free admission and national and international exhibits. When we visited, the gift shop was busy and full of people trapped by one of the frequent late-afternoon thunderstorms that suddenly erupt in the summer, washing the place down with torrents of rain. When we finally made our escape, we saw a snowy egret perched on a nearby vehicle.
Vero Beach on the mainland is a bit different. Cross the Indian River to the shore and commence picking your way through to Dodgertown. During spring training season, the Los Angeles Dodgers play home games in the afternoon and evening. It’s less expensive to go to an afternoon game, but not much shade is afforded in the open-air stands. An evening game is just right “” cool without being chilly, up-close and personal with two big-league teams, relaxed and inexpensive, with manageable traffic, and bats (the ones with wings) flitting in and out of the dark near the lights.
Mainland Vero Beach is a good-sized town, with supermarkets, malls, a major independent bookstore, several used bookstores, craft stores, restaurants, fast-food places, a small historical museum, and all sorts of services. The good-sized public library has Internet access (though you may have to wait in line) and a free-exchange paperback rack.
From Vero Beach, head south along U.S. 1, the mainland highway that parallels State Route A1A, just a few miles and you’ll arrive at the McKee Botanical Garden. There, you can stand in a bamboo grove, listening to the hard stalks clacking overhead in the breeze, and celebrate the garden’s rebirth.
First opened as McKee Jungle Gardens in 1932, the land was developed by Arthur McKee and the aforementioned Waldo Sexton. At the time, it was 80 acres in size, and it became a very popular tourist stop. Impressive water lilies, orchids, and trails kept visitors coming until the early 1970s, when competition began to take away the dollars. The garden was closed in 1976, and all but 18 acres of the land was sold to developers.
After many years, the remaining land was purchased and the garden was stabilized and restored. It was formally rededicated in November 2001. Today the hummocky paths with twists and turns keep opening up to new surprises: giant ferns; mosses; butterflies; frogs’ eggs in winding streams; and lizards sunning on rocks. This subtropical climate apparently has much to offer.
McKee Botanical Garden is open Tuesday through Sunday; admission is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $3.50 for children ages 5 to 12. A new café is now open on the site. Phone (772) 794-0601 for more information.
Fort Pierce And The SEALs
Cross the inlet and return to the barrier island (now called North Hutchinson Island, although it is actually the south portion of Orchid Island) and travel south on A1A to the Navy SEAL Museum. This is where World War II “frogmen” trained. Officially, the divers were in an underwater demolition team (UDT). Navy sea, air, and land (SEAL) teams have inherited the frogmen’s mantle.
The museum is arranged chronologically, with photos, weapons, equipment, and other items used beginning with World War II and continuing through missions in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and even in Apollo space capsule recoveries.
The museum has a gift shop, too, and ample parking is available. It is open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 4:00 p.m. Sunday; between January and April, it’s open on Mondays also. Admission is $5 for adults and $2 for children ages 6 to 12.
Pushing south, jog back to the mainland at Fort Pierce, whose mascot is the manatee. Fort Pierce has adopted these slow-moving gentle giants, and whimsically decorated manatee sculptures are mounted around town. Refurbished historical architecture characterizes parts of downtown Fort Pierce, where the St. Lucie County Historical Museum offers entertaining exhibits.
You will meet manatees everywhere at the Manatee Observation and Education Center, on North Indian River Drive. These manatees are not captive; they simply swim by when they please. In a little channel next to a bridge, we saw two of the huge manatees, idly drifting with not much more than their noses out of water. From what we could observe above water, they were brown. From what we saw below water, they were BIG.
The Manatee Observation and Education Center is located between the sea and an outlet for a nearby power station. Since the water flowing from the power station is a few degrees warmer than the water in the ocean or in the Indian River, the sirenians often paddle upstream to bask in the tepid water, especially in winter or early spring. You can climb to a higher platform for an overhead look; as we did, a loggerhead shrike flitted across our path.
The facility also offers views of bottlenose dolphins, butterflies, and birds. Admission is $1 per person, and children under age 6 are admitted free.
If you like scuba diving, you may want to explore the Urca de Lima Underwater Archaeological Preserve. It’s one of the 11 ships that wrecked in 1715 and is underwater just north of the inlet.
Hutchinson Island is the name of the next barrier isle to the south, and it’s separated from North Hutchinson Island by Fort Pierce Inlet. Take the bridge to Hutchinson Island from Fort Pierce and travel south on A1A, and you’ll have a chance to learn about atomic energy at the Florida Power & Light Energy Encounter Center. The center is at the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Plant, where you can take part in Florida Power and Light’s 30 interactive exhibits. The center is closed on Saturday, but open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Sunday through Friday. Admission is free. Phone (772) 468-4111 for more information.
As we crossed the bridge from Hutchinson Island back to the mainland, we spotted a dolphin sporting in the Indian River.
Anytime we stepped onto a beach we kept our eyes peeled, but never found an ounce of gold. Even so, treasure comes in many kinds. We observed manatees and a dolphin. We saw the sun set behind the palms and scrub. We watched the moon rise out of the sea, and listened in dark and silence as the surf beat endlessly on the shore. We played tag with the waves “” and lost. All in all, we filled our coffers with treasured memories.
Sea Treasure Gathering And The Law
Be sure you know the law if you want to try your hand at treasure gathering.
Basically, anything you find located on the beach between the water’s edge and the average high-tide line is “fair game.” Anything above that high-tide line is the private property of the landowner, while anything underwater requires a state permit for removal.
For area information, including campground listings, contact the following tourism agencies. Also, please check FMCA’s Business Directory, printed in the June and January issues of Family Motor Coaching and online at FMCA.com, for campground information.
St. Lucie County Tourism
2300 Virginia Ave.
Fort Pierce, FL 34982
Indian River County Chamber of Commerce
1216 21st St.
Vero Beach, FL 32960
Hurricane Frances and Hurricane Jeanne both hit this portion of Florida in September. As of early October, however, most of the attractions and sights mentioned in this article had reopened. In Vero Beach, Waldo’s restaurant and Humiston Park were to reopen when possible. In Fort Pierce, workers hoped to reopen the Manatee Observation and Education Center by November 1. In Sebastian, the Mel Fisher Treasure Museum was slated to reopen November 15. Generally, public beaches in the area were being reopened as they were cleaned. For more updates and campground information, contact the area tourism offices listed above.