Historic Navigation Aids

Lighthouse and beacon surrounded by the ocean
Sand Key Lighthouse located off Key West as seen in the early 1900s. Photo: Monroe County Library

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 installed beacons and lighthouses along the reef to make maritime commerce safer. As new navigation aids were installed, historic beacons were gradually claimed by the sea. Yet, remnants of these beacons are visible today on the seafloor. Stories of shipwreck and avoidance are embodied in the physical remains of these historic navigational aids.

This project was made possible through grant funding from NOAA's Preserve America Initiative.

Grounded sailing ship surrounded by smaller sailboats

Historic Navigation

Traveling through narrow passages by ship was fraught with danger and uncertainty.

Lighthouse and beacon surrounded by the ocean

History of Beacons

Man-made navigational aids helped to open our waters to commerce.

Looking above and below the water line at a lighthouse and a single rod in the foreground

Totten Beacons Project

In 2014, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries archaeologists and cultural resource managers documented beacon remains at five reefs.

Poles extending from the seafloor through the surface of the water above

Beacon Inventory

Even 160 years later, evidence of Lt. Totten's beacons can still be found in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Take a look at their locations.