A group of volunteer divers converged on the Florida Keys this week to help unlock an underwater mystery off Key Largo dating back possibly to the early 1900s.
The National Association of Black Scuba Divers is working with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary to identify a shipwreck on a reef known as the Elbow.
Underwater surveys and research conducted this week will build upon previous studies and bring maritime archaeologists a step closer to naming the wreck, sanctuary official said.
The remains of the steel-hulled ship rest in 25 feet of water six miles off Key Largo. The find has been dubbed locally as "Mike's Wreck," named after the employee of a local dive operator.
Maritime archaeologists speculate the mystery shipwreck could be the Hannah M. Bell, a British steamship that grounded on the reef in April 1911, but they need to conduct additional surveys and research to be sure.
"Confirming the exact ship does more than give the site a name -- it provides a history and context with which divers can gain greater appreciation for our shared maritime heritage," said Brenda Altmeier, sanctuary maritime heritage coordinator.
The divers of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers (NABS) are part of a larger effort by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to identify that wreck and others within the National Marine Sanctuary System.
"Shipwrecks provide important links to our past," said Jay Haigler, lifetime member of NABS and volunteer science diver for NOAA. "By providing highly trained underwater archaeology divers to projects such as this, NABS is able to support maritime scientific exploration and foster a greater understanding of our shared maritime heritage."
Sanctuary historians have reviewed newspapers and other historical archives about vessels lost at Elbow Reef and will compare the characteristics of those ships against what remains today. Sanctuary staff will use the information to establish a plan for future site documentation and management, as well as possible nomination of the site to the National Register of Historic Places.
Matthew Lawrence, a maritime archaeologist with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, is the project's principal investigator. He will present preliminary information from the surveys at the second annual Florida Keys Maritime Heritage Symposium in Key West on Sept. 22.
The shallow coral reefs of the Florida Keys have claimed countless ships over the centuries, and contributed to a once-thriving salvaging industry. The mystery wreck on the Elbow is in close proximity to two known shipwrecks -- the USS Arkansas and the City of Washington.
NABS has worked closely with the sanctuary in the past on identifying another wreck off Key Largo. In the past several years, the association, the sanctuary and the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society have been diving on the wreck, believed to be a slave ship called the Guerrero. The ship is the watery grave of 41 slaves who were chained in its hold when it went down.
The Spanish slave ship wrecked on the reef off north Key Largo on Dec. 19, 1827, according to Mel Fisher archaeology director Corey Malcom.