November 14, 2018

SAIL FISH SCUBA/Contributed
Jen Kerr of Sail Fish Scuba in Key Largo inspects an 18th-century cannon uncovered by Hurricane Irma near Elbow Reef.

SAIL FISH SCUBA/Contributed Jen Kerr of Sail Fish Scuba in Key Largo inspects an 18th-century cannon uncovered by Hurricane Irma near Elbow Reef.

KEY LARGO — Even in one of the world’s most-visited dive destinations, the ocean off the Florida Keys can reveal new discoveries.

“When I first saw it, I thought it couldn’t be real,” said Jen Kerr, co-owner of Sail Fish Scuba in Key Largo. “I honestly thought I was looking at a fake cannon somebody put out there.”

The 18th-century cannon Kerr spotted in December 2017 is unquestionably authentic, Matthew Lawrence, maritime archaeologist with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, confirmed after an underwater inspection Oct. 27 near Elbow Reef’s Hannah M. Bell shipwreck.

“Amazing things can appear when a storm event changes the ocean floor and you have observant eyes out there,” Lawrence said.

Another cannon, very similar in size and lying not far away, is a familiar feature of the dive spot in about 25 feet of water six miles offshore.

“We’re well aware of the one cannon,” Lawrence said. “Jen really deserves all the credit for this second one. I would not have been able to find it without her pointing it out.”

Jen and husband Chris ventured offshore on Dec. 20 “to explore and see what Hurricane Irma had actually done as far as damage,” she said. “I was just poking around and turned the corner to head back toward the shipwreck when I saw something that looked round, wedged down into the sand.”

Divers know underwater growth seldom creates straight lines or perfectly round shapes.

“Usually when you see something, it turns out to be a piece of modern metal that may look like a cannon,” Kerr said. “This definitely was a cannon.”

She tapped it to see if it might be a plastic reproduction, discarded or left as a prank. It was solid metal.

“Am I totally being punked? That’s what popped into my head,” Jen laughed. “Some people do stuff to see what happens.”

Kerr checked with Lisa Mongelia at the History of Diving Museum in Islamorada to see if any other dive operators had discussed a pair of cannons, likely from the 1700s, at the site.

“Lisa said they had talked about the one cannon, but not two,” Kerr said.

Hurricane roof damage that required extensive repairs to the Sail Fish Scuba shop near mile marker 103 kept the Kerrs busy for several months, along with trying to run their 6-year-old dive business.

Word about the find eventually reached Lawrence, an experienced underwater archaeologist who transferred to the Keys sanctuary a year ago.

“This area is so rich in history because of all the maritime activity having occurred off our shores, and the danger the coral reef posed to maritime transportation,” he said.

He visited the Kerrs’ dive shop on Oct. 26 and was diving with them the next day.

“We went right over to the cannon I found,” Kerr said. “I was watching Matthew’s eyes in his mask. His eyes got as big as saucers and he started firing off pictures. He put his camera down and pulled out measuring devices.

“He’s a very relaxed diver but when I saw him breathing more bubbles, I knew this might be real.”

The cannon measures about 6 feet in length.

“That’s a smaller-size cannon that could have been carried by a small sailing vessel,” Lawrence said. “Everybody was carrying cannons around in that time; it was a good way to make sure nobody bothers you.”

The cannon was partially buried beneath part of the Hannah M. Bell wreckage, a few yards away from the primary remains of the 315-foot-long steamship that was battered apart after running aground in 1911. Until being positively identified in 2012, the ship remains were known as “Mike’s Wreck.”

The newfound cannon “clearly predates the Hannah by at least 100 years or more,” Lawrence said.

Elbow Reef “is so interesting because it’s got so many layers of shipwrecks,” he said. “Not only were ships running aground on the reef, they were running aground on shipwrecks that were already there.

“Now that we’ve found this second cannon, in addition to the one we knew about, in the same general area and from about the same time, that speaks to more than just a chance of a cannon falling overboard. There may be a bigger story here.

“But they may be totally unrelated. There were so many vessels that came to grief on that reef.”

Sanctuary Cultural Resources coordinator Brenda Altmeier said information on possible new discoveries are welcome, but she cautioned divers to leave undersea historical artifacts in place.

“Call us to let us know and we’ll check it out,” she said.

kwadlow@keysnews.com