The Shipwreck Trail

by Stephen Frink

It's hard to explain the lure of a shipwreck, for it means different things to different people. In the words of Marty Meylach, a treasure salvor in the days before these sorts of activities were regulated in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary and author of Diving to a Flash of Gold: I've spent a good part of my life around the sea, spearfishing, running around in boats, exploring. But this. . .this is something else again. None of it means nearly so much as digging into a wreck and having objects of history come tumbling out. How many people can do that? It's like something being passed to you from the hands of the dead.

For underwater photographers like me, the lure goes beyond the significant sense of history, for these ships are also superb artificial reefs. Their derelict hulls provide a substrate to anchor sponges and corals, and wondrous marine life is drawn to them. The smaller fish take refuge in the nooks and crannies the ship provides and the bigger predators come to the shipwreck to find the smaller fish. The shipwreck soon becomes a complete ecosystem, with a density and diversity of life often exceeding that found on natural reefs.

The Florida Keys has had a long and fascinating maritime heritage. Historically, these shallow reefs, combined with capricious winds, brought many a ship to ruin by accident. In later years a community attuned to the touristic appeal of shipwrecks has added to the portfolio by purposely sinking ships. As a result, the Keys are one of the world's great wreck dive destinations. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has addressed this unique component of its underwater domain by creating the Shipwreck Trail. They have identified nine shipwrecks of special interest throughout the Keys and have added to our enjoyment of them by providing a comprehensive brochure outlining the history and special interests of each. Let's follow the Shipwreck Trail from Key Largo to Key West:

City of Washington: The remains of this ship lie in 25 feet of water on The Elbow off Key Largo, exactly where she ran aground on July 10, 1917. In her former life she was a passenger ship serving a route from New York to Mexico and Cuba. In 1889, with a fresh steam engine, she ran from New York to Havana in just 73 hours, very impressive for the day. She was moored in Havana Harbor when the USS Maine exploded and sank, precipitating the Spanish-American War. The City of Washington saved many Maine sailors, but 260 still died that night. When she became unable to sail under her own power, the City of Washington was converted to a barge; she was carrying coal when she sank.

The wreck site is 325 feet long, comprised mostly of the lower bilge section of the steel hull. Amid the scattered wreckage are identifiable bits such as the propeller shaft log, hull plate sections with portholes, a starboard ladder and a bow mast segment. The abundant marine life attracted to this site is the most fascinating component of the dive, with resident moray eels and Barracuda emboldened by decades of hand feeding.

Benwood: Because of the quality of the dive and its location within the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary, the 360 foot Benwood may well qualify for the world's most frequently dived wreck. Resting in just 30 to 40 feet of water, she was an indirect casualty of World War II. In 1942, to avoid the attention of German U-boats, she was running blacked out when she collided with another ship. To escape sinking in deep water, the Benwood was run aground. Later she was salvaged, used by the army for aerial target practice and finally dynamited to prevent a navigational hazard.

Today, the bow of the ship remains the most intact area, sheltering a large school of Porkfish and grunts. The hull is reasonably intact to the first deck, providing ample refuge for tropical fish. Glassy Sweepers, Lobster and moray eels reside in crevices and nooks throughout the ship and the seasonal congregates of Silversides are quite impressive.

Duane: Sitting totally upright in 120 feet of water one mile south of Key Largo's Molasses Reef, the Duane is one of the world's most successful artificial reef projects. Built in 1936, the 327 foot U.S. Coast Guard cutter served in World War II and Vietnam, as well as working in drug interdiction and search and rescue. She was decommissioned in 1985 and, with her sister ship Bibb, donated to the Keys Association of Dive Operators to serve as a dive attraction. On November 27, 1987 this proud vessel assumed her final duty.

The mast and crow's nest, now encrusted with sponges and Fire Coral, are surrounded by schools of Barracuda. At just 70 feet is the navigating bridge, now home to massive schools of grunts. The wheelhouse is a wide angle photography delight, with open doorways and photogenic portholes. Ladders, railings and deck machinery are all in excellent condition, becoming ever more colorful as the sea transforms the Duane from an instrument of war to a serene and majestic artificial reef.

San Pedro: The San Pedro and 21 other Spanish treasure ships left Havana Harbor on a Friday the 13th in 1733. Carrying a consignment of 12.4 million pesos in gold and silver extracted from the New World, the fleet was slammed by a hurricane after entering the Straits of Florida and most of the ships were lost. The San Pedro was discovered in modern times in just 18 feet of water off Indian Key and was heavily worked by salvors at the time. Because she is a wooden ship sunk in shallow water, not much of the San Pedro remains. Today she is an Archaeological Preserve and her large pile of ballast stones, replica cannons and miscellaneous artifacts are reminders of the maritime history of the Keys.

Eagle: This was the first of a series of derelict ships sunk throughout the Keys to serve as dive attractions. Built as a freighter in 1962, she caught fire in October of 1985 and was rendered useless for shipping commerce. The Florida Keys Artificial Reef Association envisioned commerce of another sort and purchased her, cleaned her and towed her to a site in 110 feet of water off Islamorada. There, amid a grand show of pyrotechnics, she slipped to the bottom, coming to rest on her starboard side.

Today, the cargo bay's house Tomtate Grunts and Amberjack buzz the wreck incessantly. The deck railings are still in place and the rudder and propeller offer impressive photo opportunities. Large mast assemblies, cargo booms and huge holds remind us of a time the Eagle carried newsprint and cardboard from Miami to Venezuela. Orange and red encrusting sponges provide dramatic contrast to the turquoise of the surrounding sea

Adelaide Baker: Built in 1863 in Maine, this ship was 152 feet long, with a double-decked oak hull sheathed in copper. In 1889 she was carrying a load of sawn timber when she wrecked on Coffins Patch reef, about four miles south of Duck Key. She now lies in 18 to 23 foot depths, scattered over a one-quarter mile square area. Two primary clusters of wreckage remain, including the lower portion of the mizzenmast and metal water box, iron main mast and miscellaneous rigging. Schools of grunts and other tropical marine life are concentrated amid the scattered wreckage.

Thunderbolt: Intentionally sunk as an artificial reef in March 1986, the Thunderbolt had been a cable layer and then was used to research harnessing the electrical power of lightning strikes. It was this unusual duty that earned her the name Thunderbolt. Now resting upright in 120 feet of water, the 188 foot ship has a classic forecastle, giant cable handling reel, an observation deck above the wheelhouse and a large bridge/chart room. A large Barracuda is usually found in the wheelhouse, massive angelfish take refuge beneath the hull and Jewfish are sighted frequently. Hydroids, soft corals and sponges create a colorful complement to this artificial reef.

Delta Shoal's Shipwreck D: Not every ship that lies on the bottom gives up her secrets easily. The design of the Delta Shoal's Shipwreck D suggests she was built between 1850 and 1890, perhaps as a multi-masted schooner. She could have been the Mary Howland, North America, Tilanon or something else entirely. All that is known for sure is that she now rests in 14 feet of water, with bits of wooden hull, ballast stone and three-quarter inch square copper spikes remaining to lure marine archaeology buffs to the site.

Alexander's Site (the USS Amesbury): Key West is a rich repository of shipwrecks, from vessels such as the Cayman Salvage Master and Joe's Tug, dived continually by the local community, to those such as the Wilkes-Barre, which are considerably deeper and appeal to tech divers. However, the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has chosen the fascinating USS Amesbury for the final component of the Shipwreck Trail.

Launched in 1943, the Destroyer Escort Amesbury served in the Normandy Invasion and supported landing in China during World War II. Chet Alexander Marine Salvage of Key West purchased her in 1962. As she was being towed to deep water to be sunk as an artificial reef, she ran aground in 25 feet of water just five miles west of Key West's gulf side. Now there are two distinct hull sections that include a three inch gun, twin 40mm anti-aircraft guns and davits and beams used to launch four landing craft. The debris field provides excellent habitat for a rich marine life congregate that includes Lobsters, groupers, Sergeant Majors, Southern Stingrays, Spadefish and even such creatures as Cobia and Pompano.

The Florida Keys are the worlds most accessible wreck dive destination. The Florida Keys, the Islands You Can Drive To, are easily visited via automobile, but those who prefer to fly will do well to choose American Airlines, Something Special to the Florida Keys, to Miami, with connecting flights on American Eagle to Marathon or Key West. For reservations or information on Florida Keys dive holidays, visit the Web site at www.fla-keys.com or call (800) FLA-KEYS.