Youth diving group recruiting new members for important work in waters of Biscayne National Park

08/06/2014 6:55 PM

08/06/2014 6:56 PM

Over several days in July, more than a dozen teens and 20-somethings from around the United States and Africa worked as volunteer marine researchers in the clear, calm waters of Biscayne National Park.

Scuba-diving 20 feet deep to the wreck of an early 18th century sailing vessel of unknown origin, they took measurements, placed small flags on outlying artifacts and made scale drawings to create an overall site plan. They relished the project — and so did the National Park Service.

“The more documentation we have, the more we can inform the public,” park superintendent Brian Carlstrom said.

Said volunteer diver Rachel Stewart, 18, a recent high school graduate from Nashville: “It’s fun working the wrecks. You get to work on a lot of skills that all come together with the diving thing. I like the archaeology, but I like the biology, as well.”

Stewart and her fellow divers were recruited by the nonprofit group Youth Diving with a Purpose headed by retired Nashville business executive Kenneth Stewart, no relation to Rachel. Stewart, 69, has been bringing adult volunteer divers to Biscayne for the past 10 years to help the park’s cultural resources staff document scores of archaeological sites. But this is only the second year that Stewart has brought young people, supported by grants and donations. He says it’s up to them to keep the project going.

“Most Diving with a Purpose members are 50 and older,” he said. “If we don’t do something quick, we’ll be Geriatric Diving with a Purpose. We need young people to continue this legacy.”

Gabriel Taliaferrow didn’t take much convincing. The 19-year-old student at SUNY Stony Brook in New York had been researching careers that involved scuba-diving when Stewart told him about the program. A marine biology major, Taliaferrow loves underwater archaeology.

“We’re writing history by going underwater and mapping different shipwreck sites,” he said. “I really like history. Maybe it could be a career choice after college.”

The students worked in buddy teams, with one person taking measurements and the other recording data on waterproof paper. Around them, hogfish grazed in the sandy fringes of the shipwreck while lobsters peeked out from beneath coral heads that have grown over the old timbers.

After two summers of underwater work in the park, Rachel Stewart said she has noticed a decline in the health of coral reefs. Her experience has piqued her interest in studying environmental engineering as an incoming freshman at Tennessee Tech.

“I want to do water resources,” she said. “I want to work on the water since it’s all coming together in one place.”

Two summers of conducting underwater mapping in South Florida is about to provide the young people with an even greater opportunity: performing groundbreaking research on the wrecks of slave ships off Mozambique in Southeast Africa next summer.

Youth Diving with a Purpose has teamed with maritime archeologist Justine Benanty of the “Slave Wrecks Project” — a collaborative research program on the transatlantic slave trade from the 17th through 19th centuries with George Washington University, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Park Service and the government of South Africa.

Benanty said the project will be the first to archaeologically document ships that wrecked with slaves on board. Other slave ship documentation, she said, was performed after the vessels were converted and reused for another purpose.

“This is no game,” Benanty said. “It’s meaningful work that will help future generations preserve underwater resources.”

Kudzi Victorino can’t wait. The 33-year old Mozambique native — her country’s first female scuba diving instructor — has been training with Benanty and Stewart’s group since last summer to become among the first to survey the wrecks of slave ships off the African coast.

“People say there are a lot of them, but nobody knows where they are,” Victorino said. “For me, it’s important because it’s history that is lost so our kids that didn’t know about this, we can share their stories with everyone.”

Carlstrom, Biscayne’s superintendent, is happy to have the young divers working in his park.

“A very cool program,” Carlstrom said. “What better way to get kids interested in the park than have them learn underwater archaeology? We engage the next generation of stewards so they understand and appreciate and want to take care of the park themselves.”

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