Mystery Wreck

Diver with a flashlight studying a large ballast mound covered in coral.
The ballast pile of this mystery wreck inside Hawk Channel remains relatively intact. Photo: Brenda Altmeier/NOAA

The "Mystery Wreck" was a colonial shipwreck that grounded on a shallow patch reef inside of Hawk Channel. The ship was approximately 62 feet in length, with a beam of 22 feet. The wreck is situated on top of one of three small patch reefs that rise from the 28-foot deep sandy floor to within 8 feet of the water's surface, approximately 1.8 nautical miles seaward of Vaca Key. Nourished by tidal currents, the area is home to a variety of vibrant corals and fish. Remnants of the vessel's lower hull and its ballast stones have become incorporated into this marine environment, camouflaged by time and nature.


Experts have not conclusively determined when this ship was lost. It is suspected to have occurred sometime in the 17th century. Artifacts from the site and analysis of its wooden components indicate an Iberian origin. After the vessel went aground, it was stripped of its cargo and equipment by the crew, and abandoned. It is believed that this contemporary salvage was extensive. Several Spanish ships are reported to have been lost in the Florida Keys between 1630 and 1688; however, none of these losses seems comparable to this shipwreck. When discovered in the 20th century, relatively few artifacts were found on the site of interest to treasure hunters. As a result, the vessel's ballast pile was not ripped apart to find coins and other artifacts.


The wreck appears to be resting on its keel. Exposed sections of the hull include stern timbers, portions of the bow assembly, and what appear to be timbers along the midship area. Stern timbers consist of the eroded sternpost, three closely spaced tail frames, and the remains of both port and starboard garboard strakes. Remains of the bow include the forward end of the keel and two small, curved disarticulated bow frames. Timbers along the midships, exposed by past salvage activities, represent the vessel's keelson, two floors, a rider, a fragment of ceiling plank, and what appears to be a small section of the pump box. Along the starboard side, several frame or futtock ends were observed protruding from the ballast pile.

Diver swimming over rounded rocks from a shipwreck.
The site's large rounded river rock ballast is concreted together in the shape of the vessel's hull. Photo: Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

During the documentation process by archaeologists from the state of Florida in partnership with the sanctuary, small samples of wood were taken from all accessible timbers, including the ship's keel, keelson, sternpost, garboard strakes, floors, and frames. During this process, investigators discovered that most of the tail and bow frames and all of the futtocks along the starboard edge of the ballast pile are not made of wood. Rather, they seem to be composed of a concrete-like substance. Archaeologist Corey Macom, who assisted with the sampling, described a cement consisting of lime, sand, and small pebble gravel that sometimes was poured between the frames of 17th-century Iberian ships. This mixture was specified by contract to be used in the building of Nuestra Señora de Atocha (Alonso Ferrera contract of 1616 [AGI Contratacíon 4895] for four 550-ton galleons, including Atocha), wrecked in 1622.

(Smith et al., 2006a)

Site Map

Archaeological drawing of the shipwreck site
Mystery Wreck site map. Credit: Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research