History Waits Beneath the Waves

History is embedded in the Florida Keys, both above and below the water. Over a 500-year history, an estimated 1,000 or more shipwrecks have occurred in the waters around the Florida Keys. The stories of the past, from the 16th century through modern times, can be unlocked by these shipwrecks and historic resources found in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

a diver swims near an arch formed by a part of a shipwreck
Divers have long been drawn to the beauty and history of shipwrecks in the Florida Keys. Photo: David Ruck/NOAA

The very word ‘maritime' invokes tradition, sacrifice, and courage. Our maritime legacy includes those who lived in the Florida Keys and considered the coastal waters their backyard as well as oceanic travelers who journeyed far from home. Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary honors and celebrates this rich maritime history by documenting these historic remains and telling the stories from the past. These historic resources can teach us about the people that came before us.

Over the past 30 years, collaborative efforts to document underwater historical resources in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary have included federal and state partners, volunteers, university researchers, historical resources permittees, avocational groups, and private residents who have contributed to 122 projects supported by 996 individuals.

An Underwater Trail of Shipwrecks

Want to learn more about submerged maritime heritage in the Florida Keys? Explore the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary's Shipwreck Trail, which provides historical and archaeological information about nine distinct shipwreck sites within the sanctuary. These nine sites were selected for their historical, biological, archaeological, and aesthetic values, site condition and stability. They offer a range of visitor accessibility from snorkeling to scuba diving.

a map of the florida keys highlighting locations of different shipwrecks
An underwater guide is available for each site on the Shipwreck Trail, providing the shipwreck and mooring buoy positions, history, a site map, and information about marine life divers might encounter. Photo: NOAA

Each site is an archetype of one of the three broad periods of South Florida's maritime history: European Colonial - 16th-18th century, representing the earliest examples of shipwrecks discovered in the sanctuary; American - 18th-20th century, representing the period in which a young United States became a cohesive nation with dramatically expanded maritime transportation; and Modern - 20th century-World War II, representing increasingly larger motorized vessels.

A diver swims near a shipwreck
Historic shipwrecks on the shipwreck trail, like the City of Washington in Key Largo, are popular scuba diving sites that provide valuable opportunities to learn more about the history of our Nation. Photo: Bill Goodwin/NOAA

Significant Deep Water Shipwreck Discovery

In Islamorada, the steamship Queen of Nassau rested unknown in 230 feet of water for nearly 80 years. The 200-foot vessel was mysteriously lost in July 1926 along the Florida Keys while in transit to Tampa. Forgotten and unmarked on charts, the vessel was a favorite fishing spot for local anglers.

In 2001, technical divers from the Association of Underwater Explorers discovered the large upright ship and notified sanctuary staff. Combining measurements, imagery, and observations of the shipwreck's unique design characteristics with historical research, NOAA archeologists were able to reveal its identity.

A photomosaic of the wreck of Queen of Nassau
A photomosaic is created by combining several images into one complete image, which allows sanctuary scientists to get a complete view of the shipwreck. Image: Tane Casserley/NOAA

The ship had been built in England in 1904 for the Canadian Fisheries Protection Service and named the CGS Canada, it was the first of a series of armed vessels that the Canadian government began using to protect their fisheries and coastlines. After years in service the vessel was decommissioned in 1919. The ship was refurbished and put into service as a passenger liner between Miami, Florida and Nassau, The Bahamas. This vessel is an example of the way that Florida Keys maritime heritage connects people and places from all over the globe.

History and Navigation

a diagram of a beacon
Totten Beacons were an early aid to navigation to warn mariners of the dangerous reef in the Florida Keys. Image: Office of Coast Survey/NOAA

The coral reefs enjoyed today by many were, at one time, considered a terrible menace to life and property because they caused hundreds of shipwrecks. In the 19th century, the U.S. federal government responded by installing lighthouses and unlit beacons along the reef to make maritime commerce safer.

While lighthouses may be the most visible part of that story, a series of 15 unlit markers first installed in the early 1850's were some of the earliest attempts to improve maritime safety. These unlit navigation aids are commonly known as Totten Beacons, after the U.S. Army's Lieutenant James Totten, who was responsible for overseeing the beacon installations.

Following more than a decade of investigation into the Totten Beacons, sanctuary archaeologists began a comprehensive survey of the beacons in the Florida Keys. Researchers compiled historical information, including locations where beacons were placed in the 1850s and the 1880s. This project supported the sanctuary's mission to protect maritime heritage resources, and established a baseline for monitoring the condition of the beacons.

The history of these navigational aids is an integral part of the overall maritime story of the Florida Keys, intertwined with natural, living resources found on the reefs that mariners sought to avoid. Today, the remnants of the Totten Beacons provide a glimpse into the progression of modern maritime navigation. In 2014, the sanctuary received a Preserve American Grant to continue field investigations to document the unlit markers.

a diver measures parts of a beacon on the seafloor
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary volunteers were the first to locate the Totten Beacon markers. Photo: Matt Lawrence/NOAA

Partnership With a Purpose

For more than a decade, Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has been collaborating with Diving With A Purpose, an organization that provides education and training programs, mission leadership, and project support services for submerged heritage preservation and conservation projects worldwide. Since 2010, Diving with a Purpose and Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary staff have documented five unique shipwrecks, emassing a total of 11,070 hours of volunteer time from 205 Diving with a Purpose citizen scientists.

a diver floats above a shipwreck
Citizen scientists team up with Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary staff each summer to investigate unknown submerged cultural resources. Photo: Brenda Altmeier/NOAA

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and Diving With A Purpose, along with the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society and RPM Nautical Foundation, investigated the suspected shipwreck site of the pirate slave ship Guerrero, which wrecked at the northern end of Key Largo in 1827.

Guerrero was being chased by the British vessel H.M.S Nimble to prevent the sale of enslaved Africans to Cuban plantations. At the time, Guerrero carried 561 enslaved Africans; as a result of its collision with the reef, 41 people drowned. Those who survived faced incredible hardship -- some people were recaptured by the pirates and sold into slavery in Cuba, while a luckier few were returned to Africa after years of legal limbo and exploitation, at the American Colonization Society's settlement in Liberia.

This partnership continues to work toward conclusively identifying the final resting place of the pirate slave ship Guerrero and to use maritime archaeology to amplify the story of the enslaved Africans whose voices were silenced in our past.

many divers investigate a shipwreck
Partnerships between the sanctuary and nonprofit organizations enhance efforts to identify and study our submerged history. Photo: Tane Casserley/NOAA

Diving with a Purpose also assisted Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary in mapping two previously unidentified large steamship wrecks at Elbow Reef in Key Largo, Florida. These sites are now known to be the British steamships Hannah M. Bell and Acorn. The site maps produced from this project provide the sanctuary with baseline documentation of historic shipwrecks and interpretive information to share with the public.

Over the last 30 years, sanctuary staff, volunteers and partnerships have helped to bolster our knowledge and document our underwater history. We hope that through revealing Florida Keys heritage and telling the stories of our past, we can contribute to a sense of community that will support our nation for the next 30 years -- and beyond.