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Ocean explorers comb Keys’ deep waters for shipwrecks

Long before GPS, the coral reef tract that runs along the Florida Keys routinely sank unsuspecting ships. Storms also blew boats into the hard, shallow structures, contributing to a massive underwater graveyard.

An American schooner named Kate, the British brig Lion and the French ship Cora Nelly all met their demise on this popular marine trade route. So did the Spanish warship Arcuana and the Winchester, a British man-of-war captained by John Soule that hit a reef so hard it tore a hole in its hull in 1695.

“It’s a fascinating world out there of all the shipwrecks in our own backyard,” says Brenda Altmeier, a support specialist for maritime heritage resources at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Some shipwreck sites have been well known for decades. The Winchester was discovered in 1938 and was the subject of a National Geographic article. But the whereabouts of many of the sunken vessels — or what little is likely left of them — remains a mystery.

Key Largo-based ocean explorer Ian Koblick and his partner Craig Mullen are hoping to change that by conducting the first comprehensive survey of the Keys ocean floor.

“We’re treasure hunting for cultural jewels,” Mullen says.

They began by dusting off a 1988 report by researcher Judy Halas, who spent endless hours scouring 18 volumes of admiralty records, newspaper articles and other sources to document 877 ships that were lost, bilged, saved, sunk, rammed, stranded, “ashore” or torpedoed in the waters of the island chain.

Koblick and Mullen are attacking the shipwreck project with technology — sidescan sonar, subfloor profiler, magnetometer, remote-operated vehicle (ROV) — along with their decades of expedition and underwater experience.

Koblick was an aquanaut with the Tektite undersea research program off the Virgin Islands, searched for treasure with Mel Fisher and co-developed the Jules Undersea Lodge in Key Largo. Mullen, a former Navy diver, was president of the company that helped recover the booster rocket after the space shuttle Challenger exploded over the Atlantic.

Since 2003, their Aurora Special Purpose Trust has discovered 27 wrecks, from a seventh century B.C. Phoenician vessel to a World War II submarine, in the depths of the Mediterranean.

Turning their attention to their own backyard, they don’t expect to find intact wrecks or cargo. For starters, many of the ships were made of wood, “and the wood is all gone,” Mullen says. “Critters like the shipworm eat it up.”

Much of the cargo and other valuables was recovered by Keys “wreckers” who scavenged the wrecks, and much of the rest became divers’ souvenirs. But Koblick and Mullen believe there is still a good chance of locating cannons, steam boilers, machinery and other metallic parts.

They began by surveying two sections of the Upper Keys off Key Largo with a sidescan sonar that looks like a torpedo and has been nicknamed “The Fish.”

One stretch, which includes popular dive site Molasses Reef, is seven miles long by half a mile wide and runs between 60 and nearly 200 feet deep. The other half-mile-wide swatch is about 11 miles long, running from The Elbow to Turtle Reef, and includes Carysfort Reef, where three dozen ships are documented to have run into trouble.

The data was captured onboard the 34-foot survey vessel by Rick Horgan, a remote sensing specialist and former Navy buddy of Mullen’s, and also transmitted to Horgan’s computer via the tow cable.

It took about 10 days to survey the two sections, a monotonous process that Mullen says is like “mowing grass.” Horgan spent the next couple of weeks analyzing the data to put together a mosaic of the sea floor. While they found plenty of modern-day sailboats, dinghies and other debris, they did not find any “clear, stick-up-out-of-the-bottom shipwrecks,” Mullen says. “But we didn’t expect to.”

They did find a series of perfectly round sinkholes near Carysfort Reef, some about 50 feet across, depth so far unknown.

“We want to go back with the ROV and try to understand how they got there,” Mullen says. “We saw a couple of these type of sinkholes in the Mediterranean, but those were Ice Age type of things.”

They also found a number of reefs more than 100 feet deep that didn’t appear to be on any charts, Mullen says.

The mosaic also features some aberrations that appear worthy of further investigation. “One might be an old anchor that leads us somewhere,” he says.

The project got off the ground with funding from the Norman and Barbara Tomlinson Foundation of Miami. To survey all the Keys and investigate potential shipwrecks and unusual geological formations will take another $400,000, Koblick estimated.

“We’re doing it about as cheap as we can be doing this, and it still costs about $5,000 a day,” Mullen says.

Finding funding isn’t easy.

“It is a harder sell than treasure hunting,” Mullen says. “People have to have a more altruistic and historic bent than those investors looking for gold and all the romance that goes with that. But I think what we’re finding is exciting and well worth doing.”

The Marine Sanctuary’s Altmeier agrees.

“What they are doing is giving us a snapshot of our resources,” she says.

“That allows management to make good decisions. If we know about a unique resource that they come across we can study it. Shipwrecks offer a unique opportunity to study time — a microcosm of a cultural event that took place.”