Monday, December 13, 2010

Trail of the Pirates: Treasure Coast

Trail of the Pirates is a travel series exploring maritime history, culture and lore between Key West and St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida.

McLarty Treasure Museum
Sunken treasure from the 1715 fleet still lies just offshore here.


After Martin County, I headed north to Indian River County via A1A to the McLarty Treasure Museum, a small historical outpost near Sebastian Inlet State Park. But don't let the museum's size deceive you -- it's in the waters just behind the museum where one of the east coast's most colossal shipwrecks took place in 1715, when a fleet of eleven Spanish galleons, loaded with treasure, succumbed to a hurricane.

elizabeth farneseThe story behind the 1715 fleet takes us back to Europe. Elisabeth Farnese, the wife of King Philip V of Spain, had a taste for finery and refused to consummate the marriage until he could produce her long wish list of gold, silver, diamonds, emeralds and pearls, some of which may have come from as far as Manila in the Philippines.

This wasn't the first time the king worked hard to please her; it would be the third fleet to go down with her jewels, the last estimated at $900 million. It seems the queen eventually put out even without her bling, birthing two sons for the king. Don't think the queen was simply a greedy bitch, though. She was a powerful politician in her own right and knew exactly what she was doing.

But I digress. As we all know, where ever there was treasure, you'd also be likely to find marauding pirates. After the 1715 fleet sank, 700 poor souls went missing and those who survived set up camp at the McLarty site. They managed, but under horrible conditions, despite receiving some help from the local Ais Indians.

McLarty Treasure Museum
Some very dramatic history took place here in the eighteenth century. Today, this area of the treasure coast is a quiet stretch of beach.

The Spanish abandoned salvaging attempts in 1719 but not before experiencing several raids from pirates, including two from Henry Jennings, an English privateer with operations out of Port Royal, Jamaica. His first attempt at raiding the sunken ships and terrorizing the salvage camp was so successful, he came back for seconds, "relieving" the Spanish of additional booty. It's said Jennings was ruthless and even the Governor of Jamaica revoked his commission as privateer. Eventually, Jennings became a leader in the pirate haven of New Providence, Bahamas.

More than 250 years after the wreck, Mel Fisher and Kip Wagner worked the area, where on-going salvaging efforts, now performed by private companies, continue to yield treasure. Recently in October, a mother and daughter dive team found a solid gold bird near Fort Pierce valued at $885,000.

You don't need to dive with a license to find treasure. Aficionados with metal detectors can search for coins, jewels and other artifacts by combing the shore, especially after a windy storm coming in from the northeast.

The McLarty Museum houses artifacts and some treasure from the fleet. If you go, make sure you see the in-house video, which is very informative.

Below, hear me yapping about the history, with the sound of the surf in the background.


For the true motherlode, I headed a little north back on the mainland where Mel Fisher's daughter, Taffi Abt-Fisher, gave me a tour of Mel Fisher's Treasures Museum in Sebastian. Unlike the non-profit Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in Key West, which I featured in the first installment of this series, this museum is privately owned but open to the public. Today, the museum is run by Mel Fisher's grand-daughter with a little help from mom, who has retired from the historic salvaging business and works as a consultant. Though small in size, the museum is jam-packed with gleaming pieces from many of Fisher's salvaging efforts. As well, it houses a laboratory where you can see specialists at work cleaning artifacts through a large glass window. The museum also has a wall exhibit devoted to the history of this treasure hunting family.

Mel Fisher's Treasure Museum
This is what it's all about, folks. The pieces are not only stunning, but also tell tales of their own.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Abt-Fisher after she gave me a tour of the museum. She was very humble and laid back about her family's amazing accomplishments, approaching it with an "it's all an a day's work" attitude, which I found refreshing. But in truth, without the Fishers and others who worked doggedly at historic salvaging, Florida would be missing a very important part of its maritime history.

At one point in Mel Fisher's career, the State of Florida tried to claim it owned the Atocha site near the Keys. After much legal wrangling, Fisher won his case, but thereafter 20% off all his finds would go to the state. The problem here, according to Abt-Fisher and others I've spoken to, is that the treasure just sits there, with nowhere to exhibit. It's a vast cultural heritage stuck in Tallahassee, all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Salvaging treasure has never been easy. "The government could be considered the true pirates," Abt-Fisher said. "They're constantly trying to take away our right to go treasure hunting."

But let's not get into politics. This series is about the rich history we find here right off Florida's waters. Here's Abt-Fisher talking about her favorite family finds and more.



Sebastian Inlet State Park
Pure energy roars through the man-made inlet joining the Atlantic and the Indian River.

Sebastian Inlet State Park is a beautiful state park located 15 miles south of Melbourne Beach and just minutes from the McLarty Treasure Museum. Fishing is a popular activity here, but other recreational activities are available. A small wading beach welcomes bathers when the surf is too rough on the ocean. Expect native vegetation, sea oats and dunes as your backdrop on the beach, a favorite among surfers when the waves are just right. A fishing jetty extends out to the Atlantic and is good for a walk even for non-anglers. If you love the sea, come here and fill your lungs with some incredibly invigorating air and listen to the sound of the powerful currents.


Captain Hiram's Resort
The Sandbar is worth a stop when you're in the Sebastian area.

The Sandbar at Captain Hiram's Resort is a waterfront restaurant and bar facing the Indian River, near Mel Fisher's Treasures. Come here for refreshment, great food and live music on the weekends.

Colorful and laid-back, any parrot head or pirate would love it where you can kick-back with sand under your feet. There's also a slightly more formal indoor restaurant if you don't want to eat outdoors.

Captain Hiram's Resort
If you stay at Captain Hiram's, ask for a waterfront room facing the Indian River. Get up early to see dolphin frolicking in the water.


Waldo's Driftwood Resort, located on the ocean in Vero Beach, is one of the weirdest and most interesting places I've ever seen. Even if you don't stay here, come and check out the exterior architecture, which is made completely of found timbers and planks, as well as a hodge-podge of nautical objects and antiques from around the world. The restaurant on site is open for lunch and dinner. Make sure you come during the day, so you can feast your eyes on all the architectural details. Every inch of the exteriors has something interesting from Waldo Sexton's collection. As a pioneer, Waldo was quite the character. Learn more about him here.

Waldo's Driftwood Inn
Waldo's Driftwood Resort, founded in 1935, is on the National Register of Historic Places.


Special thanks to Annie's Costumes, Visit Florida, Indian River County Tourism and Captain Hiram's Resort for supporting this part of the journey.

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