When Biscayne National Park Assistant Supervisor Myrna Palfrey talks about what historical secrets may be buried in the balmy blue waters and shallow reefs off South Florida shores, there is passion in her voice, passion to uncover mysteries of the past.
“There’s so much to this,’’ she said. “There are things about humankind and our history that can be found in these sites. Let’s document it, let’s study it and see what’s there.”
In addition to the vibrant and colorful plant and marine life at Biscayne National Park, there are almost two dozen shipwrecks within the park’s 100 square miles.
But the history of the ships and their ill-fated crews, along with any cargo they might have been carrying, is known to only a handful of people.
Painting the often rich and colorful stories of these shipwrecks was a goal of dive enthusiast Brenda Lanzendorf, a ranger who was the park’s lone archeologist.
Cancer claimed Lanzendorf’s life in April, but it could not stop a progressive program she spearheaded for the park: to document its shipwrecks, identify its artifacts, and piece together the remaining clues to link the past to the present.
But like many great ideas and projects, this one requires time, commitment and resources, and that’s where volunteer divers come in.
One national organization that teamed with the park is Diving with a Purpose. Diver Kenneth Stewart started the organization, comprising mainly African-American divers from around the country. He formed the group to bring more meaning to his dives.
“I’ve been diving 20 years and all the reefs start looking alike, so I decided to come up with Diving With a Purpose so we have a mission: to learn how to be archeologists,” he said.
The team recently spent a week diving at Biscayne National Park; measuring, recording and documenting as much information as possible about several shipwrecks within the park.
“You dive for a lot of years and you kind of need something to give you a purpose to dive,” said Ruth Cauthen, a dentist from Virginia Beach. “You’ve seen a lot of fish. You’ve seen a lot of coral, but why are you diving? This actually recreates a lot of enthusiasm to know that I’m doing something that’s really important.”
One of the youngest members of the team is just a teenager.
“Diving with a Purpose represents to me being able to go underwater and use skills that I’ve learned to be able to identify something of the past,” said Kwadjo Tillman, 14, “…something that could be important to our future and how we look at it.”
The divers descend with tape measures, identification flags and drawing boards to record as much information as possible. Every artifact, piece of metal or wood or remaining trinket logged from a wreck helps divers learn the country of origin of the ship – perhaps the time period it was built, and maybe even what cargo it was carrying. That information, in turn, gives archeologists a better understanding of what role the ship played in South Florida history.
For instance, something few know is that the Florida Straits was a common route for ships transporting enslaved Africans. One such ship, the Guerrero, went down on a reef off Key Largo in 1827 with 561 enslaved Africans on board.
The specific wreckage has yet to be found.
Said Stewart: “I think our history has not been told and I think it’s important that we tell it. Slavery was a very big part of American history and it needs to be told.”
For more information on diving with a purpose or the Guerrero, log on to www.nabsdivers.org or www.theguerreroproject.org.
Julia Yarbough, a news anchor at NBC 6 and CW News at Ten, writes periodically on her outdoor adventures.