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Treasure Off The Coast: Sebastian Salvage Team Makes Mysterious Find

Tania Ortega-Cowan

We are NPR for the Treasure Coast – and that name – the Treasure Coast – originates from actual treasure buried below the ocean just off our coastline!

On July 31, 1715, eleven of the twelve ships of the 1715 Spanish Treasure Fleet, were lost in a hurricane near present-day Vero Beach. They were heavily loaded with silver and gold treasure, and to this day, treasure hunters seek to find it all.

This past July, a group of treasure salvors under the permit of Queen’s Jewels in Sebastian, found 45 pieces of silver coins AND a rare coin dating to 1617! We met up with them at Capt’n Butcher’s Marina in Sebastian where they keep one of their three boats of their treasure salvage operation.

KF: My name is Kym Ferrell.

Ferrell is the Captain.

KF: Yep - that’s me. That’s a very unique coin right there because this wreck is 1715 and that coin is from 1617. Nobody’s really got the drift on how that coin got there.

Ferrell is from Miami and started treasure diving when he was 14.

KF: When you can get in the water and touch something that’s history it comes alive in your hands – because nobody’s touched that in 3 or 400 years depending on the age.

Credit Tania Ortega-Cowan
Jim Wilson, Richard Rabon, Bill Black, Kym Ferrell, Mike Penninger and Jeff Harness

The coins are currently in their treasure lab, being cleaned up, identified and valued. Head diver Mike Penninger made the find.

MP: My name’s Mike Penninger.

He had a hunch about where to look.

MP: Well, I had found something back in the 90’s and just wanted to get back in that general area.

Penninger was an engineer on the space shuttle program in Cape Canaveral for 30 years and started treasure hunting in 1992 when he met Mel Fisher.

MP: I ran into Mel Fisher down in Key West at the Museum and he sucked me in. So I got my own boat back in 1993 and worked the 1715 wrecks.

He retired to become a full-time treasure diver.

JH: My name is Jeff Harness. I am a diver.

Harness is a lifelong diver and helped pull up the bounty in July.

JH:  Well, Mike found it. Mike directed us to the spot. And he found the initial pile. And then it was my turn to get in and I continued to bring up pieces of 8.

That’s what the coins are called.

Credit Tania Ortega-Cowan
Silver pie crimper salvaged from the 1715 Spanish Fleet wreck site

JH: And artifacts as well.

They found pottery shards and something else: a silver pie crimper.

RR: I’m Richard Rabon. I’ve always sort of been interested in old things.

A history major, he worked in museums and on the Florida Historic Preservation Board.

RR: You know, that sort of thing makes you love what you do when you are looking for treasures!  I’m the oldest guy on the boat – just turned 73. On a good day if the captain is feeling very well he will call me the deck boss, but, no, I am just there to make sandwiches, mainly. (laughs)

Captain Ferrell chimes in…

KF: He likes it like me: I like to put my hands on stuff that nobody’s touched in 3 or 400 years. But he had the background to tell me what it was.

Rounding out the team is…

BB: I’m Bill Black.

He doesn’t dive but he has a very important job.

BB: Pay the bills and raise the money! We just sell shares in what we find.

The state gets up to 20% of all finds. The team splits the rest with Queen’s Jewels. Regarding their recent find…

BB: We think that these coins were all in one pouch that belonged to somebody involved in the minting of the coins or a collector because to get this many that are this good is unheard of.

Vero Beach Native and treasure enthusiast Jim Wilson reached out to us to let us know of their find.

JW: Once you touch a piece of history… It just…

KF: You’re done!

JW: It’s amazing. It’s very moving. It gets to you. You think, I am going to do that again!

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