Since 1513 when Juan Ponce de León sailed south along the coast of Florida on a route that would become the most important shipping lane in the New World, mariners have had to navigate a treacherous menace: the barrier coral reef.
It arcs for 200 miles, primarily along the coast of the Keys and on the edge of the powerful Gulf Stream, and in many places comes close to the surface from shallow waters several miles off shore. Over the decades, hundreds of schooners, barges, freighters, treasure fleets and military vessels have rammed into it, with some captains surprised to discover it there and others unable to prevent being blown into it by storms.
Taming the reef began with crude charts by the Spanish and evolved with the erection of six reef lighthouses and several “Totten beacons” in the 1800s. Next came GPS and sophisticated electronic navigation systems. And even with the latest and greatest technology of today, the use of visual navigation aids continues to have some importance.
A year ago the U.S. Coast Guard installed two new 40-foot-tall steel structures with LED lights that can be seen from 14 nautical miles away in all directions, at a cost of about $100,000 each. They have replaced the lighthouses at Sand Key and Carysfort Reef, which used to show mariners the way by day and night.
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Three more of the modern-day beacons, which will be smaller and cost about $30,000 each, are in the planning stages. They can’t come soon enough, at least at Alligator Reef, where the lighthouse was reported “extinguished” for the first time, on July 2. Its flashing white light will never work again, because as was also the case at Sand Key and Carysfort, the more than 100-year-old structure was deemed too dangerous and expensive to continue maintaining.
“The quotes we’ve heard to repair lighthouses are in the millions,” said Lt. Timothy Martin, field operations chief for the Seventh Coast Guard District. “The savings to taxpayers with these new structures is tremendous.”
But while GPS and high-tech navigational systems have helped mariners know almost exactly where they are on the waters, most of the mariner community and those who manage the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary agreed that some form of lighted navigational aid should remain in place along the reef tract.
“We have such a low tolerance for shipwrecks today,” said Matthew Lawrence, a maritime archaeologist with the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts. “A single ship going down on the reef could destroy so much of the economy, as well as all the environmental damage it would do.”
Lawrence was in the Keys last week as part of a project to survey the submerged remains and tell the mostly forgotten story of the “Totten Beacons,” which were a series of unlighted structures about 30 feet tall that had different colors and letters and were erected in the mid-1800s to fill in navigational gaps between the better-known reef lighthouses that ran from Biscayne Bay to Key West.
He obtained a $10,161 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s “Preserve America Initiative.” Another $21,000 in man hours and in-kind contribution came from budgets of the agencies working on the project.
The U.S. Coast Survey, which evolved into NOAA, spent decades providing better charts of the waters off the Keys and erecting the series of “Totten Beacons.” They were named after Lt. James Totten, who was loaned to the Coast Survey by the U.S. Army. Totten led the project to install 16 of the unlighted beacons, lettered A through P, and stretching from Fowey Rocks just south of Miami to Eastern Sambo Reef off Key West.
“Everyone would have loved to have lighthouses dotting the entire reef, but the cost was something they never could have borne,” Lawrence said. “The beacons were much cheaper.”
Even in 1826, a lighthouse cost $10,000.
But while the beacons worked fairly well for decades, by the 1930s they became obsolete and were left to become part of the sea, just a footnote in history.
But in the mid-1990s, not long after the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary was established, many volunteers surveyed the waters for natural and cultural sights. One of those volunteers, J.J. Kennedy, said they were drift diving and started finding long poles in the waters.
Although they had more than 100 years of encrusted marine life on them, making them partly blend into the natural setting, Kennedy said the volunteers knew by their shapes that they weren’t natural.
“We were curious what they were,” he said. “Then we found a couple of the letters, which were next to those poles. That was the ‘aha,’ and then we knew what the rest of the things were.”
The beacons became part of a five-volume report documenting 660 sites that was issued in 1995, but little else was done with them until this project, called “Mariner’s Signposts: The U.S. Coast Survey’s Florida Reef Beacons.”
“We’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” said Brenda Altmeier, maritime heritage program coordinator for the Keys sanctuary. “We just had to find the time and money.”
Lawrence and Altmeier are leading a group that has spent the past week documenting the beacons by surveying them and doing scaled drawings, as well as photographing and taking video of them. Cory Malcom of the Mel Fisher Maritime Heritage Society also is working on some 3D imagery of the beacons.
The plan is to produce interpretive web pages designed to attract tourists and locals to the beacons, as well as provide historical information.
On French Reef, which has one of the most intact beacons (except that its letter G now looks more like a C), there are two poles sticking out of the coral, but both were bent in the same direction.
“We were trying to figure out which way the [Category 5] Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 blew,” Malcom said. “Maybe the storm bent them.”
‘Fair weather aids’
The beacons were about 45 feet long, depending upon the water depth, with five-foot-squared letters that rotated with the wind. They also had a three-foot-wide and five-foot-high cylinder of hoop iron on the top, said Upper Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson, who found the information in an 1855 U.S. Coast Survey chart.
“They could be seen for two to three miles away with a spyglass, so you knew you were getting close to the reef,” Lawrence said. “But the problem was they were not lighted. On a stormy night, you are probably not going to spot it. So it’s probably fair to say they were fair weather navigation aids.”
But Lawrence said the beacons still helped southbound mariners who were trying to hug that reef line to avoid the Gulf Stream, which flows swiftly to the north.
At several of the submerged sites, there are two and even three pole structures, indicating that the original ones were damaged and new ones were put in the same location.
“At Pickles Reef, we saw three piles,” Lawrence said. “We’re trying to figure out, primarily by their shapes, which came first. It’s one of the little mysteries we are working on.”
They also are trying to figure out how they were installed in the hard coral.
FARTHER FROM REEF
The new beacons are being placed nowhere near the fragile reef. Bill Goodwin, a biologist with the sanctuary, has worked with the Coast Guard on locations that would be suitable to place the structures and not damage coral.
And the three new ones will be only 16 feet tall, with a range of only seven miles. The Coast Guard’s Martin said they don’t need to shine as far today because of GPS and other navigational aids. “We designed them to shine out to the extremities of the sanctuary, just to make sure the sanctuary is protected,” he said.
The beacons are not as sexy-looking as the iconic lighthouses, but they do the same job for navigation.
Now, the big question is what will happen to the lighthouses? The National Historic Lighthouse Act of 2000 created a framework on how to transfer ownership. The preference is for a government agency or nonprofit group, but a private buyer is also possible. The reef lighthouses used to have living quarters where tenders lived until they became automated in the 1960s.
“You never know, people will buy anything,” said Andrew Haley, a civilian marine information specialist with the Coast Guard’s District 7 Office.