DE: Hidden Gem: DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum

Have you ever wanted to see gold and coins recovered from a shipwreck? If you’re an adventurer like me, then you’ll want to visit the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum on Fenwick Island, Delaware.

DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum
DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum [photo credit: Linda Barrett]
Tucked away on the second floor of the gift shop Sea Shell City, DiscoverSea contains artifacts from shipwrecks both regional and worldwide, with exhibits that are ever-changing. More than 10,000 artifacts are on display at any one time (about 10-20% of its collection). The other 80-90% rotates through shipwreck exhibits around the world.

I was lucky enough to speak with founder and owner Dale Clifton, Jr., himself an undersea explorer. He took me inside the vault where I got to hold a heavy and thick gold chain intended for Queen Isabella, recovered from the 1622 Nuestra Senora de Atocha shipwreck off of Key West, Florida. The 10.5-foot gold chain was valued at $750,000 in 2010. I also got to hold a gold bar. It’s hard to believe just how heavy gold can be. Clifton told us that when you find gold beneath the sea, it looks just as if it would be on land. It does not tarnish or change color. It is as bright as can be!

DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum
Dale Clifton Jr. shows the gold chain intended for Queen Isabella [photo credit: Linda Barrett]
I thoroughly enjoyed viewing his collections of gold doubloons, pieces of eight, precious gemstones, navigational tools, weapons, and other treasures recovered throughout the years. I also learned about restoration and preservation of these items. Other than gold, most items become encrusted with minerals over the years. The actual item can only be seen with an X-ray. DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum shows how electrolysis can remove the minerals, revealing the treasure inside. You might easily mistake a treasure for a rock.

DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum
Precious stones recovered from a shipwreck [photo credit: Linda Barrett]

Finding His Passion for Shipwrecks

Clifton tells how he first became interested in shipwreck finds. “I picked up the small, blackened disc from the sand and gently rubbed at its surface. There looking back at me was the image of King George III of England. I had found my first treasure—the stuff dreams are made of! To actually hold in my hand one of these legendary coins and know that the last person to touch it had died more than 195 years ago, on a stormy night on September 1, 1785 was an extraordinary feeling.”

After a year-long search, he had discovered his first coin and realized that the find would change his life forever. “Not only had I been given the chance to shake hands with history, now I was challenged with the task of preserving this artifact, as well as sharing its story with others.”

DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum
Gold and coins recovered from shipwrecks at the DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum [photo credit: Linda Barrett]
This first coin was found on what was dubbed “Coin Beach,” for its many coins. Clifton himself has recovered more than 200,000 coins from this very beach that runs just north of the Indian River Inlet. These coins presumably came from the shipwreck of the Faithful Steward that sank with 400 barrels of coins on September 2, 1785. Those barrels contained up to 190,000 coins each! He has a huge display of coins on exhibit.

In fact, Clifton had so many coins that for years he would create a “buried treasure” of them and challenge people to find (and keep) the hidden stash. He created “pirate maps” that would lead them to the treasure if they could figure out the clues. Area groups still hold Scavenger Hunts.

For more than 40 years now, Clifton has been recovering artifacts from shipwreck and Colonial sites. He is now a serious marine archaeologist. The DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum opened in 1995.

DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum
Dishes and bottles display [photo credit: Linda Barrett]

DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum Hours:

Jan-Mar hours not posted
April-May, Sat & Sun 11AM – 3:30 PM
June-August, Daily 10 AM – 5 PM
September, Daily 11 AM – 3:30 PM
October-December, Sat & Sun 11AM -3:30 PM
Closed on Wednesdays

Note: Hours are subject to change.

The museum is free, however, donations are accepted.

DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum
708 Coastal Highway
Fenwick Island, DE 19944

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