Tuesday, July 12, 2005


Underwater trail highlights shipwrecks off Miami


Herald Tribune
By Curtis Morgan
July 10, 2005

BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARK - After four decades under the sea, the schooner Mandalay has lost its graceful shape and every fitting that could be pried from its broken hull.

But the 112-foot ship, which ripped open running across Long Reef near Elliott Key in 1966, has gained another kind of allure. Shimmering clouds of fish surround the rusting steel skeleton encrusted with hard corals and soft sea fans, which flutter to the rhythm of rolling waves.

In Biscayne National Park, the most spectacular scenery is underwater - but not all of it is natural. At least 50 shipwrecks, from 50 to 300 years old, rest in park waters. While some have long been unnamed marks on nautical charts, many people don't know their origins or that they exist at all.

After years of research, park managers are putting the finishing touches on an underwater "heritage trail" that will make it easier to both locate and learn about one of the richest collections of shipwrecks in the country.

"Very few people realize there is this valuable historical resources in their backyard," said Brenda Lanzendorf, Biscayne's archaeologist. "We have some pretty awesome wrecks. We have Spanish gold fleets and British warships from the 18th century and 20th century freighters."

The initial trail will mark five wrecks with mooring buoys and provide snorkelers and divers with short histories of the ships and detailed diagrams on waterproof cards of what they'll see at wreck sites. Work on three of the sites could be done by December; the remaining two by next summer.

The park will produce free pamphlets for visitors about the sites, and booklets at a nominal cost with longer histories of the five ships, documenting everything from where they were built to what they carried to how they sank in what Lanzendorf called "ship traps" - the treacherous shallow reefs that stretch from Key Biscayne to the Florida Keys.

The first five ships include four large steamers - the Alicia, Lugano, Erl King, and what is believed to be the Arratoon Apcar. They went down between 1878 and 1913 from Fowey Light south to Ajax Reef, all in a line about three miles east of Elliott Key.

The fifth, the Mandalay, was a double-masted sailboat in Windjammer Cruises fleet. It ran aground on New Year's Eve 1966, at the end of a 10-day sail when the skipper miscalculated his course. Passengers and crew were rescued, but the ship was quickly stripped by looters and salvors, then pummeled by rough seas before breaking up.

Resting in only 10 feet of water, it may be the prettiest wreck dive in the park - and one of the easiest to snorkel.

Large sections of the ship remain intact and a huge fuel tank rises so high that waves sometimes break over it.

Just don't expect to find a king's ransom like treasure hunter Mel Fisher. For one thing, you can't legally remove anything from a national park - not even a rusty bolt.

The reality is that every known site in the park has been picked over - including at least one ship believed to have been part of the ill-starred 1733 Spanish gold fleet, which hurricanes dashed off South Florida.

"There is probably nothing of big value as far as gems lying around on the bottom," said Terry Helmers, a University of Miami computer systems administrator and amateur maritime historian. His lifelong fascination with South Florida wrecks has provided the park with much of its most recent research.

The Miami native, 52, dove many of the wrecks as a kid with his father.

"We started off by looking at those little wreck symbols on boating charts," he said. "You start out trying to figure out how to get to those and before you know it, you're coming across others.

"It doesn't take long before the fever hits you, to go out and start looking for shipwrecks."

This summer, Helmers' 13-year-old daughter Carolyn has joined a squadron of volunteers who have helped the park pull together the wreck trail.

Unlike most wreck hunters, the treasure for Helmers has always been the tale: Where did these ships come from?

Starting in the 1980s, he began building a database by reading newspapers dating back more than 100 years - information that helped persuade the state to name the Half Moon, a 154-foot yacht sunk a mile off Bear Cut as Miami-Dade County's first underwater archaeological preserve in 2000.

Lanzendorf said Helmers' work also has filled in many mysteries left in a handful of early books about Biscayne's wrecks. A $37,860 grant from the South Florida National Parks Trust, a nonprofit group that raises money for South Florida's three national parks, also helped Biscayne National Park complete painstaking documentation of the sites.

For historians, the wrecks provide clues to everything from shipbuilding techniques to trade and cultural exchanges.

Before putting them on wider public display, teams of volunteers have been diving the sites armed with sophisticated gear to precisely measure and record the position of every jagged ship fragment.

"It's literally like drawing an underwater blueprint," Lanzendorf said. Unless there is a ship's bell or some other distinctive artifact, even definitively naming a ship requires deep detective work - matching ship design, cannon markings or remnants of its cargo to often sketchy records.

For instance, a wreck off Fowey Light was long identified as the Arakanapka, based on the journals of Miami pioneer Ralph Munroe. But Helmers, finding no other references to that ship names, had begun to suspect it was another ship called the Mississippi.

Then, only a few years ago, diver Michael Barnette, author of Shipwrecks of the Sunshine State, uncovered the story of the Arratoon Apcar, a British steamer that sunk near Fowey en route to Havana in 1878.

Arakanapka. Arratoon Apcar. It took more than a century to decipher the mystery of a mangled name.

Along with the 50 shipwrecks, the park has dozens of other underwater archaeological sites, including one with 200-year-old British cannons. But most of the sites are still unsurveyed.

Lanzendorf said the park plans to add more sites in coming years, in hopes of creating a trail that would extend through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which has had a nine-ship trail since 1999, all the way to Dry Tortuga National Park, which is working on a trail of its own.

Most historical wrecks are far more degraded than the dozens of ships sunken over the last few decades as artificial reefs. Some are little more than flattened fields of rusting debris. But what they may lack in eye appeal, they make up for in romance.

After storms, old coins and bits of pottery sometimes still emerge on some sites, which are largely buried beneath centuries of shifting sand. And since the park has only fully surveyed about 18 percent of its 180,000 acres, there is always a shot that something has been missed - a very long shot.

"Is there a chance? Absolutely," Helmers said. "There could still be something of value."

But, he added with a laugh, "The odds of having gold bars or treasure chest laying on the surface with gems hanging out of it are pretty darn slim."


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