Ship Wreck Lore on the Florida Keys

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Who isn’t fascinated by buried or sunken treasure?  I surely am.  As a child I loved to search for treasure and as an adult as we seek out our bargains, our flea market finds and junk sale prizes we are just doing another version of this time honored tradition.

As far as searching for treasure from ship wrecks, the Florida Keys is a likely place.  While visiting last week, our guide on Old Town Trolley told us at one time there was a wreck a week on the dangerous coastal reef.  During the 19th century, he said that the islanders would stand on lookouts of their tall houses watching for ship wrecks. They would call out “Wreck”.  Everyone would then scramble to be the first to arrive. They would save the passengers, scavenge the goods, and then resell them at a big profit. This business at one time made Key West one of the richest cities in the US.

In Key West, this was a highly organized and regulated industry.   Extending along the Keys is a line of shallow coral reefs, called the Florida Reef. Running parallel to the Keys, with the most dangerous shoals stretching west from Key West to the Dry Tortugas they run for approximately 200 miles. Ships frequented the Straits of Florida, a major route for shipping between our eastern coast and ports in the Gulf and Caribbean.  In the Straits, the powerful current and dangerous reefs made the Florida Keys the site of a great many wrecks.  One report from the collector of customs in Key West reported a rate of 48 wrecks a year in 1848.

Billy Dean has a website http://aquaexplorers.com/florida_keys_shipwrecks.htmwith a list of wrecks for divers to locate and check out. The list includes a variety from a ship sunk as a dive site, to a German U-boat and an unidentified ship from Barcelona Spain. The wrecks have stories with them some simply ships that lived out their usefulness and were sunk for that reason, to really sad like this one, “On June 12, 1943, the R-12 was cruising off Key West, Florida. She was about to take her position for a torpedo practice run. The collision alarm sounded, and a report that her forward battery compartment was flooding was passed on to the bridge. Orders were given to blow her main ballast and close hatches, but the R-12 sank within 15 seconds. She took 42 officers and crew to a watery grave. The only survivors were her bridge personnel, which included two officers and three enlisted men.

This dive is only for professionals while the Spanish wreck was in only about 8′ of water. There is even a shipwreck trail http://floridakeys.noaa.gov/shipwrecktrail/ that can be followed as well. 

While there are many wrecks, and stories about power in Key West changing hands over the years, perhaps the most sought after of the wrecks were the Spanish treasure ships.  In 1622, six ships of the Spanish treasure fleet sunk to a watery grave during a hurricane.  The Spaniards tried to recover the gold and silver for 21 years, but the Spanish lost track of the Nuestra Señora de Atocha, a ship that was finally found and excavated in the 20th century by Mel Fisher.

We toured the Mel Fisher museum (http://www.melfisher.org/museum.htm) and enjoyed looking at some of the treasures he found during his long search.  Mel had been a chicken farmer that got caught up in the ship wreck lore.  After opening a dive shop, he tried his hand at treasure hunting and after learning of Spanish treasure in shallow waters he moved to Florida with his wife, and his family.  The search took its toll.  Fisher suffered the tragic losses his son and son’s wife as he hunted year-after-year for the elusive treasure.  Finally on July 20, 1985 he found the wreck which included 40 tons of gold and silver and some 100,000 Spanish silver coins known as “Pieces of Eight”, gold coins, Columbian emeralds, golden and silver artifacts and 1000 silver bars.  Today some of these items are on display in his museum.  While the treasure is fascinating, it was the story of a man and his family consumed with the hunt.

There is another Ship Wreck Museum on the island that we didn’t make it to, but the fascination with treasure hunting continues today both on land and in the water.  My big find was the golden Florida sunshine which was a beacon of light after the Midwest dreary weather we left behind.

Take time to look for your find in the beautiful Key West. They offer it all, good food, water, island breezes, shopping and ocean, a treasure indeed.