Historic Navigation Aids

Diver with two beacon posts.

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 nineteenth 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.

diver and beacon

Historic Navigation
Beginning in the fifteenth century, European exploration and colonization of the Americas brought increasing numbers of voyagers along the shores of the Florida Keys and within the reach of the treacherous coral reefs that bounded the western side of the Florida Straits. More


Historic postcard showing beacon

History of Beacons
During the nineteenth century, poor positioning accuracy contributed to dozens of vessels grounding each year. In an attempt to remedy this problem, the U.S. Coast Survey began developing a system of navigational aids, including a series of unlighted reef beacons, to visually warn ships of their proximity to the reef. More


Diver investigates beacon

Project Description
Following more than a decade of ad hoc investigation into the “Totten Beacons,” Office of National Marine Sanctuaries archaeologists and cultural resource managers undertook a comprehensive survey of the beacons to better understand the importance of the U. S. Coast Survey’s efforts to protect life and property in the Florida Keys. More


Map showing location of beacons

Beacon Inventory
Lt. James Totten installed 15 beacons along the Florida reef in the 1850s, 10 of which are located within the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. More