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Beauty, Adventure, And Thievery: Plundering Biscayne National Park's Sunken Treasures

A looter raided archaeological sites in Biscayne National Park to create this marker on the sea floor. NPS photo.

Deep in south Florida lies a collection of islands so unique and exotic, one might compare them to precious stones on a lady's necklace. Set among this string of jewels known as the Florida Keys lies a particularly appealing gem: an underwater national park.

Biscayne National Park lies 95 percent underwater, and contains stunningly intricate coral reefs, an array of fascinating sealife, and 55 shipwreck sites. Alongside these sites are 33 additional submerged archaeological sites that range from sunken cargoes and artifacts to even colonial anchors moored in the seabed absent their ships.

But this alluring national park does not always attract pleasant visitors. Plagued by looters, the park constantly must spend extra time and money to keep criminals away from plundering the shipwrecks.

The shipwreck “English China,” nicknamed for its abundant English ceramic artifacts, sank in the late 1760s. The first groups of people to visit this sunken beauty were called ‘wreckers.’ These were men who would brave the troubled seas, particularly around the Florida Keys. Not only would they come to the rescue of crews on foundered ships, but afterwards they would return to salvage what they could of the wreck’s remains.

Such ‘wreckers’ probably obtained much of the ship’s valuable cargo in the 1760s, leaving only the scraps and pieces -- but this does not deter modern-day looters from trying their luck. Charles Lawson, Biscayne’s staff archaeologist and cultural resource manager, says these latter-day pirates are most likely unsuccessful in their scavenging. But they nevertheless do damage to the site.

Underwater Pirates Continue To Vandalize Biscayne Today

“Vandals come upon the site and see all the broken artifacts, (and) this perhaps encourages them to dig into the wreck and look for whole artifacts,” he guesses. “I doubt that they successfully find any artifacts of value, but in the process they tear apart the 250-year-old ship timbers, flip over coral heads, and disrupt the integrity and context of the site.”

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Some of the artifacts found on the "English China." NPS photo.

This disruption makes it very difficult for the archaeologists to investigate and further gather additional information about the wreck. It also ruins the delicate balance of the surrounding coral reef, harming its inhabitants.

“One looter even left behind his own marker which he manufactured out of artifacts that were taken off at least two other shipwreck sites,” says Mr. Lawson. “This knowledge is based upon the variety of ages of the glass bottles he used to make it."

Today, Biscayne is still having problems with looters at the English China Site, with at least four instances of vandalism occurring in the last three years.

“One of the instances was particularly bad. A number of timbers were pried up and broken off and nearly every coral head on the site was flipped over,” said the archaeologist.

Looters often flip coral in hopes that they’ll find something underneath it that has not been touched before. They know that coral is old, and that it indicates a spot where other looters have not yet plundered. Another looting instance occurred at a site known as the “Brick Wreck.” The site merited its name from the large pile of bricks that have become home to a thriving underwater ecosystem. Plunderers have long been coming to this wreck looking for bottles, buttons, and small artifacts. Since it’s been such a popular wreck to plunder, it has been void of any artifacts of interest for many years.

In 2010, a looter, probably disappointed with his findings, ripped apart the brick wall by hooking his boat's anchor onto it and motoring a short distance away. He likely was hoping to find a fresh part of the wreck to scavenge. 

“This was a particularly disgusting event that showed a total disrespect for our shared cultural and natural resources,” says Mr. Lawson.

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Archeological Technician and project crew chief Allen Wilson dredging sediment away from the timbers of the Soldier Key Wreck. NPS photo.

Law Enforcement Trying To Protect Sites

It is because of this disrespect and destruction that the park’s law enforcement staff has focused a heavy amount of attention to the monitoring of shipwrecks.

“We have trained all of our law enforcement officers in the identification of archaeological materials and tools used by looters, and we have conducted joint archaeological projects and law enforcement operations between our cultural resources staff and our law enforcement,” says Mr. Lawson. “We have open investigations into specific instances of looting by special agents, and coordinate monitoring of park resources by outside law enforcement agencies. We are determined to put a stop to the looting.”

Unfortunately, despite the looting, arrests are infrequent. 

"It has been some time since anyone was caught looting in the park," says Mr. Lawson. "In 1985 three men were stopped and found to have digging equipment and several buckets of iron artifacts that included ship's spikes, and rigging, and cannonballs. They probably had stolen the materials off of a site know as the 'Pillar Dollar Wreck,' which is a likely Spanish shipwreck from the late 1700s.

"They were threatened with prosecution under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, but eventually pled down to lesser charges in exchange for their cooperating with law enforcement."

For guests of the park, Biscayne encourages visitors to explore the shipwrecks, legally, by voyaging along the ‘Maritime Heritage Trail.’ This trail includes six wrecks developed for viewing via a guided boat tour. One of the wrecks, the Mandalay, is open to snorkelers; the other five can be explored by scuba diving.

All six wrecks are very different; they were all chosen for the trail under specific criteria. Mr. Lawson mapped out the four required criteria:

1. The sites are all shipwrecks that have been heavily salvaged in the past. None of the sites has many, if any, portable artifacts to speak of, so there is little threat to their integrity from illicit collection by uninformed visitors.

2. Detailed site plans and photo and video documentation have been prepared for each of the wrecks. This documentation facilitates annual archaeological monitoring for impacts stemming from public visitation.

3. Park archaeologists needed to have the sites identified, and their histories documented so that their stories could be interpreted (They waived this requirement for one of the sites because they couldn't sufficiently ascertain the wreck's history. Instead they interpret the archaeology of the wreck as a “19th Century Sailing Vessel.”) 

4. Sites were chosen with a diver experience in mind, and were picked to showcase cultural resources as well as healthy coral reef formations and fish habitat. The sites are all good dives that can be appreciated for both natural and cultural beauty.

The six sites are named: “19th Century Wooden Sailing Vessel,” “Alicia,” “Arratoon Apcar,” “Erl King,” “Lugano,” and “Mandalay.” You can learn more about the histories of these wrecks on the Biscayne’s website.

Mr. Lawson says growth of this trail is possible, as long as additional wrecks considered for their inclusion satisfy all four criteria.

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The excavated site. Shortly after this picture was taken the sediment was placed back over the timbers and ballast stones were restored above the wreck to protect it from future erosion. NPS photo.

However, the archaeologists are hesitant to add more wrecks to the trail due to the very real threat of illegal plundering.

Preserving The Past

In the face of the looting Mr. Lawson and his team persevere by putting their skills to work gaining more knowledge for the park, and for the people.

Recently, the team has been working on identifying a wreck named ‘The Soldier Key Wreck.’ This wreck was subject to a human disturbance other than looting. In the early 1980s, unprofessional archaeologists conducted an excavation, during which they removed mass amounts of sand and ballast stones that had protected the integrity of the wreck for years.

Since the 1980s, the now uncovered and unprotected wreck endured a number of natural disturbances including hurricanes, rough waves, and organisms attracted to the wreck’s wooden hull. Lawson and his team began work on the Soldier Key Wreck to repair the damage done in the 1980s. Along with the reparations, the archeologists were also able to establish quite a few things about the ship.

"The techniques involved in the ship’s construction revealed to us that the vessel was built sometime in the late 1700s to early 1800s, and that it was a large ship, probably in excess of 100 feet,” the archaeologist explains. “ The fact that it is located in water only a couple of feet deep indicates that the event under which it sank could only have been a major storm. The condition of the timbers also revealed that the vessel was built with an extraordinary level of care (likely at great expense) and was relatively new when it sank. There were a large number of allspice seeds present, indicating that she was carrying a cargo of the Jamaican trade spice; almost certainly on her way back to a European (most likely British) port.”

The archaeologists are now working on preserving the wreck and the artifacts found. They will also be looking for records between 1750 and 1825, of a large, new, cargo vessel carrying allspice from Jamaica to Europe. It is with the discovery of these details, that Mr. Lawson and his crew have a good chance at identifying the wreck, and its course, correctly.

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Archaeologist John Bright uses a hose to redeposit sediment at the Soldier Key site. NPS photo.

Mr. Lawson, the other archaeologists, and the rest of the team at Biscayne put a great amount of effort into discovering, preserving, and educating the public about the new and exciting information regarding the wrecks resting in this underwater park.

Coupled with a truly beautiful location, Biscayne National Park is a must-see for any type of traveler. Along with exploring the wrecks, there are a number of things to do and see, but please remember to always keep the park’s motto in mind: Take only pictures, leave only bubbles!

Hadley Kunz is a Traveler intern. A recent West Virginia University graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism, she grew up with a regular diet of outings in the Poconos, and expanded that once in college to outdoors locations in Pennslyvania, West Virginia, Colorado and Utah. She recently wrote about Fairy Shrimp for the Traveler.

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Sounds just like the "pot hunters" who ravage archaeological sites in the Four Corners area.

Umm that's a very nice polite description of "wreckers" but they were also famous for causing the wrecks in the first place by fake navigation lights etc that would cause ships to run aground, and aside from "saving" the passengers on the foundering boat they would sometimes kill them.

KeyWester: You are correct that some wreckers were quite unscrupulous, the most notable Keys example being Jacob Houseman of Indian Key. That said, the majority of wreckers were actually decent people providing a needed and valuable service. There were bad apples, no doubt, but they did not ruin the bushel as is often reported.

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