A group of Florida Keys Community College students took to the water Friday to hone their underwater archaeology skills.
The college partnered with the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum and Heritage Society and Southpoint Divers to survey the wreck of the Marie J. Thompson, an old wooden sailing schooner that beached in the flats just east of the mouth of Calda Channel in the early 1900s.
The students are enrolled in the college's Research Diving class and were working with archaeologist Corey Malcom, director of archaeology for the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum, on surveying the wreck and compiling data.
The students started the day touring the Mel Fisher Museum and its restoration department's lab, where thousands of artifacts have been preserved.
The students then explored the Marie J. Thompson and collected data on the size and width, giving the students hands-on experience diving a real historical wreck.
The college's Marine Science and Technology Program rivals that of many four-year institutions when it comes to hands-on training and technology. Among the programs at the college, Marine Science attracts the highest number of students from outside the Florida Keys, Professor Alex Brylske said.
"We have ideal conditions," Brylske said. "Freshmen and sophomores are getting to do things they would not be able to do until they do their graduate work .... They have a solid skill set when they leave us in two years."
Kyle Duncan came to the Florida Keys from Cape Coral to study marine sciences because of the strength of the college's program.
"I don't know of any other school of its size that offers these types of programs," Duncan said. "It's great."
The roughly 160-foot Marie J. Thompson was the largest ship ever built in the Bahamas and was constructed at the request of Norberg Thompson, a Key West tycoon who ran sponging, fishing, shrimping and ice making businesses and a cigar box factory. He sold gourmet turtle soup, shipped pineapple and guava, and ran barge and truck lines.
The vessel was named after Thompson's daughter, who later married Key West real estate mogul Edward Knight. Marie Thompson, who went by the name Joan, died in 2000.
Very little else is known about the Marie J. Thompson. The only public reminder that the ship was here is an old photograph at the Monroe County Public Library's Key West branch and a painting of it by David Harrison Wright that now hangs at the Key West Yacht Club.
Malcom has combed through what few newspaper clippings and old letters he can find about the ship. Norberg Thompson wrote in a letter in April 1919 that the schooner he was building was "160 feet on the keel and will have four masts." Malcom had been told the ship was either damaged or not built correctly and had numerous structural problems over the course of its life. The ship eventually may have been taken near Calda Channel, stripped and burned, Malcom has said.
The ship did make some transatlantic crossings, carrying fruit between Key West and England. It primarily carried wood for Thompson's cigar box factory, Malcom said. The ship was constructed from the wreckage of other ships.