PORT RICHEY — The wet sand sifts through the scoop and there it is, gold, shining warm like a small sun beaming just for him. This is what keeps Vinny Mariotti going, 10 hours a day, seven days a week. "The thrill of the unknown," he says. He 55 and retired, living in Port Richey with his second wife and a small, white Shih Tzu named Pee Pee, a nickname that stuck after a tumultuous potty training.
Mariotti is sinewy and taut in his wet suit from the 10 miles a day he spends walking Florida beaches and hefting his metal detecting equipment. While hunting, he eats Zone bars and, at home, he drinks weight gain shakes, to keep up with the calories he sweats off. His greenish gold eyes and perfect, white teeth flash bright against his skin, now the color of beef jerky.
Out here, on the beach, Mariotti is guardian of all things lost. The thrill of the find is universal and temptation is great. But Mariotti also sees himself as keeper of a code of honor — a noble adventurer of the surf; finding for good and not for greed and glory.
He helps anyone who asks for it. So many people pack up their belongings at the end of the day and realize their wedding band is lost or an earring is gone and begin sobbing.
Mariotti tries to find things for them; if not that day, then he keeps going back for days or weeks. Many treasure hunters keep all of their finds, regardless of whether they could reunite it with an owner or not. Mariotti couldn't do that, on ethical grounds, but also because he knows what it feels like to lose something precious.
His father, whom he was named after, gave him a family ring months before he passed away. Mariotti took it off in a restaurant bathroom so he could wash his hands. A few minutes later, when he realized what happened, the ring was gone. Someone took it without asking or caring about its owner.
Mariotti, who is a talker, goes quiet thinking about the ring. That loss still aches so many years later. He couldn't give that kind of hurt to someone else.
"I like to sleep at night," Mariotti says.
He also believes in karma and listening to his gut. Mariotti has always been intuitive — his senses helped him buying and selling land in Pennsylvania, before he moved to Florida.
Now it helps him in his metal detecting, which he was drawn to because of all it is — history, loss, rebirth, reunion, endurance, sweat, character.
"I get a feeling," he said, "and then I hunt the hell out of it."
He's found hundreds of pieces of jewelry, some worth thousands of dollars. Mariotti finds about $70 in change each week. "There is more money lost than there is in circulation," he said.
But two of his recent finds, at undisclosed Florida beaches, are his most intriguing.
A year and a half ago, he found a gold-plated Buddha that has been dated to 1820. He went out to the same spot where he found it a few days later and something bumped against his foot. It was the metal chapel-like structure that, at one point, encased the Buddha.
"It wanted to be found," Mariotti said.
The bottom of the Buddha was sealed on with wax. Mariotti took it off and, inside the small statue, he found clove incense that still smelled strong, prayer wheels and scrolls that, when unwound, reach several feet. There are marks on the scroll in another language that have not yet been translated. Mariotti said an expert with Sotheby's said the Buddha is from Northern Tibet.
The other recent find is even more befuddling and exciting. It is an old coin with what seems to be hieroglyphics on both sides. But coin experts are having trouble dating it. The coin could be thousands of years old. Someone within the past century encased the coin's sides with silver, so it could be worn as a necklace — which might be how it ended up lost in the ocean.
He plans to take both the Buddha and coin to professors at the University of South Florida for help. Mariotti has been showing them to area experts and chipping away at the secret of their history slowly.
It's hard to find time when he's at the beach every day.
It calls to him; lone wolf of the sea, white knight of the despaired, a skinny, tanned man with headphones on searching for treasure and finding himself.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.