Diving into the past: NOAA, volunteer archaeologists reveal American history in the deep

By Elly Bengtsson

February 2019

In September 2017, Hurricane Irma tore through Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, damaging the sanctuary’s coral reef and the surrounding community. The sanctuary has been assessing and restoring the reef, but has also been focused on another task. At Molasses Reef, one of the sanctuary’s most popular dive sites, the hurricane uncovered a shipwreck structure. With the help of the heritage and environmental preservation nonprofit Diving With a Purpose (DWP), the sanctuary has documented wreckage believed to belong to the 19th-century Austrian ship Slobodna.

diver documenting a shipwreck structure
Diving With a Purpose advocate Phillip Ogbonna draws a cylindrical structure believed to be a water tank. Photo: Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

A mission for two

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has been collaborating with DWP for more than a decade to document wrecks in the Florida Keys and elsewhere. Jay Haigler, a board member and lead instructor with DWP’s maritime archaeology field school, explains that the organization provides “education, training, certification, and field experience to adults and youth in the fields of maritime archaeology and ocean conservation.” The group was established in 2005 with support and momentum from members of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.

DWP divers have a special focus on documenting slave trade shipwrecks and other African-American submerged artifacts and participating in coral reef restoration. When Slobodna wreckage was uncovered by the hurricane, DWP was enlisted to help construct a digital site map.

divers gathered together for a group photo
Diving With a Purpose divers gather before traveling offshore to the Molasses Reef archaeological site. Photo: Brenda Altmeier/NOAA

History beneath the waves

Slobodna ran aground in 1887 at Molasses Reef while carrying a cargo of cotton from New Orleans. Today, the wreck’s iron frame, wood planking, and other ship fittings all lie 15 to 30 feet below the surface. Contemporary salvage and storms like Irma have broken the ship apart, scattering its remains across the reef.

Slobodna now rests in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Video: NOAA

“Until recently, divers visiting the area have thought that it was material related to the Overseas Railroad, as the ship's iron frame looks somewhat like railroad rails,” explains ONMS maritime archaeologist Matthew Lawrence. Hull fragments and other artifacts, revealed by Hurricane Irma’s sand movement, gave researchers evidence to believe the material came from Slobodna and the nearby dive site “Winch Hole” long associated with this wreck.

two divers discussing dive plans
Diving With A Purpose divers discuss preliminary data and draw sketches of the wreck site. Photo: Brenda Altmeier/NOAA

Parrotfish, barracudas, yellowtail snapper, nurse sharks, chubs, and tarpon swirled around the team of 30 DWP divers as they made their first dive on the wreckage. This exploration of the entire site provided an overview of the task to be accomplished and started the discussion on how to best accomplish their work.

Next, divers erected a tape measure baseline supported by metal rods along the centerline of the wreckage. Once this reference line was in place, divers split into groups of two. They scattered across the wreck with tape measures, rulers, pencils, and slates with waterproof paper to map the visible wreck features.

Each day, DWP team members returned to their basecamp at the National Park Service’s Florida Bay Interagency Science Center to draw their wreck sections. The detailed map they created will help Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary monitor long-term changes to the wreck site and provide divers a more enriching experience of Slobodna beneath the waves.

During the expedition, Lawrence, ONMS maritime heritage coordinator Brenda Altmeier, and University of Miami maritime archaeology intern Cassie Qualls joined DWP to assist and observe. This team and DWP’s Jay Haigler all agree that expeditions like these are essential for the cataloging and preservation of underwater wrecks, and to engage divers in maritime history. Altmeier says that diving on historic sites documented by DWP “provides for a more exciting experience and engenders a sense of personal interest for divers.”

divers documenting shipwreck artifacts
Rebecca Hunter and Ayeta Heatley work together to measure the position of an artifact in relation to the reference baseline. Photo: Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

Partnership from the past to the future

lt. frank h. moody
Tuskegee Airman Lt. Frank H. Moody was killed when his Bell P-39Q Airacobra crashed in Lake Huron on April 11, 1944. Divers recently discovered Moody’s airplane in 30 feet of water north of Port Huron, Michigan.

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries has worked with DWP on multiple projects, with many more planned in coming years. Another recent collaborative project with DWP has been underway at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Michigan, where studies and outreach have occured after a submerged World War II airplane wreck was discovered in Lake Huron. The plane belonged to 2nd Lieutenant Frank H. Moody, one of the Tuskegee Airmen, an African-American unit of fighter pilots during World War II. Later this summer, DWP plans to dedicate a memorial to recognize the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen who perished in training accidents in Port Huron, Michigan. DWP will continue to be involved at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Michigan as other plane wrecks are identified.

In our collaborative projects, DWP has contributed over 20,000 volunteer hours to collecting underwater archaeological data, creating site maps and spreading knowledge about marine ecology and history with a wide community. Haigler explains that the partnership allows DWP “the opportunity to provide our maritime archaeology field school participants with mission-based work. Our field school graduates have opportunities to apply their skills to conservation activities and contribute to the ongoing success of the sanctuaries.” At the same time, Altmeier explains, DWP helps “spread the word about Florida Keys history and how interconnected we are through our collective maritime heritage.”

Elly Bengtsson is a biology student at Bates College and volunteer communications intern at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.