Finders keepers


Florida's Treasure Coast has always held an attraction for seekers of a better life. Riley Kaminer investigates. Illustration by Jonny Mowat.

Living in Southeast Florida, the phrase ‘Treasure Coast’ is as inescapable as it is unexplained. Plastered on everything from car dealerships to dive bars, all that a non-native can ascertain from the name is a certain feeling of pride it evokes in those who use it.

When locals talk about the Treasure Coast, they are describing a region on the south-east coast of the state, from the northernmost portion of Palm Beach County through Indian River County, which is approximately 75 miles from one end to the other. However, the phrase has come to mean much more than just this unofficial description of a coastal area. It is a cultural manifestation of the pioneering, treasure-seeking spirit that is present in all Floridians, both new and native: an ironically collective manifestation of an individualistic spirit unique to the state that embraces people looking for a new lease on life.

The exact origin on the term Treasure Coast is somewhat disputed. The general consensus is that the phrase refers to a series of Spanish treasure ships that sank in the area in the early 18th century. What is less clear is exactly who came up with the name in the first place. Some arguments include that it was created by a local Chamber of Commerce as a marketing tool to attract tourists; that it was devised by a treasure hunter whose museum contains artifacts from a wreck dating to 1715; or that it was coined by regional journalists who were jealous of the excitingly-named ‘Space Coast’ to the north and ‘Gold Coast’ to the south. Local legends aside, I came to learn that the most important part of the Treasure Coast moniker was not the term’s origin, but the pervasive spirit that it embodied.

Upon moving to Florida, I immediately felt a connection to this idea. I had just graduated from university in the UK and was unsure of my next steps. After having lived abroad for a few years, I was concerned about my return to the US – and particularly about going back to live with my parents, who had just moved to this new and exotic place. 

However, once I arrived in the region and began meeting locals, I experienced an embrace equal in warmth to the sun’s omnipresent rays. I met a middle-aged Londoner who, unconvinced by his prospects in the UK as a young adult, ran away with a Floridian woman, opened an art shop on the Treasure Coast and never looked back. I volunteered with a former schoolteacher who escaped a toxic marriage to her high school sweetheart in a small town outside of New York City, moved to Florida, and happily began a new relationship with another retiree. I spent New Year’s Eve with a group of self-described surfer ‘dudes and dudettes’ who traded their banal  existence in the mainstream workforce for a life chasing the next wave (and doing some side gigs between surf sessions).

What all of these locals had in common was this neo-Manifest Destiny spirit: the opportunity they saw to move to a new place filled with sunshine, relatively inexpensive housing, and a higher overall quality of life. 

It was only a matter of time before I saw – and felt – this spirit firsthand.

One Friday afternoon, I was watching the beginning of a sunset from the balcony of my apartment when I noticed a mysterious white object floating out at sea. I grabbed my binoculars and fixed my eyes on what appeared to be a small box, the size of an airline-approved carry-on suitcase. 

The possibilities of what exactly this object was started racing through my mind. My first thought was that I had stumbled upon a ‘square grouper’ – a bale of drugs thrown overboard or out of an aeroplane in an attempt to evade police detection. I then considered the exciting possibility that it could be a safe containing innumerable lost treasures, untouched by human hands for decades – if not centuries. I noticed that the box was much longer than it was wide, reminding me of a coffin. Would I find a corpse? And if I found one, how would I ensure that the authorities did not think that I had played a role in the death of the poor soul?

I pushed these dark thoughts out of my mind, put my binoculars around my neck, and descended upon the beach to assess this situation for myself. I was unable to see the shoreline from my perch, but I approximated that I had a few minutes before landfall to run down and secure my position on the beach and subsequent ownership of whatever treasure was contained within the object.

As I walked down the wooden pathway to enter the beach, covered by sea grape trees that blocked my view of the ocean, I immediately heard screams of jubilation – unmistakable signs of excitement, and anticipation. I was not alone in my treasure hunt. Far from it. 

I seemed to have stumbled upon a party of preteens, fully clad in bathing suits and reeking of sunscreen as they frolicked through the foamy ocean waters. Their parents were standing guard at a reasonable distance, sipping cans of Bud Light emblazoned with the logos of Florida sports teams and passing around an inevitably lukewarm container of private label salsa.

Everyone on the beach had their vision unmistakably fixed in the distance, waiting for the object to come into shore. For a brief moment, I felt a pang of jealousy. This was my treasure: I had noticed it almost an hour beforehand, and therefore I had the right to whatever was to be found.

However, as soon as the object arrived on shore, I knew it was every man (or child) for himself. Throngs of the prepubescent kids jumped on, in, and around the object before it even hit land. It took the strength of seven or eight of them to bring it out of the water.

The object was about three feet by nine feet and must have been part of an auxiliary storage system for a boat, which probably fell off or was thrown away in one of the various storms that ravaged the state in the last few years. It was made of a very sturdy, cement-like material which gave it a feeling of security and durability, only somewhat undermined by the fact that it had lost its top somewhere at sea.

As I was assessing the nature of the object, the children pillaged the insides of the box. They pulled out a large red fuel container, which one of the fathers declared with dismay, was empty (before putting it into his wife’s tote bag to take home). Inside the box were a few standard items that one would expect to see in a box that someone threw off the side of a boat: an old string of plastic buoys, a handful of candy wrappers and a couple of Coke cans.

Despite the ostensibly disappointing nature of this treasure, the children were elated. They were pushing and shoving each other in an attempt to put their bodies inside the box and jump up and down with the speed of someone trying to wear down a sugar high. The kids that were relegated to the area outside the box were running their hands over it, inspecting every nook and cranny with the discerning eye of a fine art appraiser.

Meanwhile, the parents stood around the box taking photos and desperately trying to organize their children, to no avail. Eventually they gave up, realizing that their obsession with the box alleviated them from their guardian duties. 

When I left, the kids’ excitement had not waned. They had found their treasure, and they were going to bask in its glory. At least until the beach closed at dusk.