Historical Resource Protection

Shells shaped into tools by the Indigenous inhabitants of the Florida Keys
Tools fashioned by Indigenous peoples found at Stock Island near Key West. Image courtesy of Joan Borel

Historical resources in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are protected. A historical resource is an object, site, or structure having historical, cultural, archaeological, or paleontological significance. Historical resources can be shipwrecks, aids to navigation, Native American sites, and other isolated objects associated with earlier people, cultures, human activities, or events. Shipwrecks can include parts of the ship structure such as pieces of wooden or iron hull and associated items like masts, cannons, and ship's fittings. Even the smallest items such as those associated with the crew or cargo, including ceramics, glassware, and coins might help to date or identify the vessel. Because they are fragile, non-renewable and/or important components to our history and understanding of past culture it's important not to touch or uncover artifacts. Leave them in place.

In Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, historical resources come from a broad time range, spanning thousands of years of inhabitation by Indigenous people to the Modern Era. While these and other maritime heritage resources of the sanctuary represent important historic clues to our nation's past, it is also important to note that native peoples occupied the Florida Keys and South Florida long before the first Europeans arrived. For generations, they traveled the coast in dugout canoes to fish and trade goods. Tools fashioned from marine shells have been found and are evidence of this early occupation. Fourteen of the sanctuary's historic sites are listed in the Department of the Interior's National Register of Historic Places. Sanctuary scientists and partners are continually documenting and researching ships that rest on the ocean floor.

Report Sightings of Historical Resources

If you happen upon a shipwreck site or an historical object, it is okay to look, but do not disturb anything. If you think the site has yet to be discovered, contact the sanctuary's maritime archaeologist, Matthew Lawrence, with details on where you found the site. This will allow the sanctuary to investigate further. The National Marine Sanctuaries Act makes it illegal to disturb a site or recover artifacts within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary without a permit.

Where to See Shipwrecks

If you are interested in diving or snorkeling shipwrecks within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, we encourage you to check out the sanctuary's Shipwreck Trail. These historic ships lie scattered along the treacherous coral reefs and buried a few miles off shore. The nine ships along this Shipwreck Trail have many tales to tell, from the stories of individuals who came before us to why they were here and their difficulties in navigating these waters.

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 that divers might encounter. Conditions on the Shipwreck Trail sites vary from easy dives in shallow water to deeper dives of l00 feet or more where swift currents may be encountered. Some of the deeper sites require mooring to submerged buoys. Remember that if you dive or snorkel on shipwrecks in the sanctuary, be respectful of these resources and do not disturb them.

Small fragment of ceramic on the seafloor.
A ceramic sherd found on an archaeological site may be the clue that unlocks its story. Photo: Florida's Bureau of Archaeological Research


Display of a cannon surrounded by informational signs
Cannon from a wreck at Carysfort Reef dated to the mid-18th century. Photo: Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

There are many places to learn more about the sanctuary's maritime heritage and view artifacts recovered from shipwrecks. Dive back in time and learn of the hardships faced by those who were brave enough to travel by sea long before GPS navigation existed.

Artifacts in the sanctuary's collection that are on display for educational purposes include those recovered to learn more about a sanctuary site while others were illegally recovered and then confiscated by or turned over to authorities.

The list below features maritime heritage-related exhibits open to the public.

A cannon and other shipwreck artifacts in a museum display.

Explore projected images of shipwrecks and view artifacts and a real cannon from the 1733 Spanish fleet disaster.

John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park Visitor Center

Learn about the pirate slave ship Guerrero and other Key Largo-focused maritime heritage stories.

The exterior of a building with palm trees growing nearby

See an 18th-century cannon recovered from a shipwreck at Carysfort Reef.

A display under glass in a museum setting

Learn about the First People of the Florida Keys, the 1733 Spanish Fleet, pirates, wreckers, fishers, and more.

A man and woman reviewing a brochure under a canopy of tropical trees.

See a 600-year-old dugout canoe, shipwreck artifacts, and a historic house to see what life was like 100 years ago in the Florida Keys.

A cannon in the foreground and a museum sign in the distance

Featuring artifacts from the 1622 Fleet, the slave ship Henrietta Marie, and other sanctuary shipwrecks.

A large, white warship at dock

Explore the many decks and compartments in this historic warship to learn its history. Two of its sister ships were sunk off Key Largo as artificial reefs.