Civil War tugboat

Shipwreck near Fort De Soto may receive state designation

John W. ‘’Billy’’ MorrisPhoto Florida Aquarium

By Stephen Thompson - The Tampa Tribune

Roughly two miles west of Fort De Soto Park, in about 18 feet of water, lies what's left of the USS Narcissus, a Civil War tugboat that exploded after hitting a shoal in 1866, killing all 29 people on board.

When the state started surveying the wreck in the 1990s, there wasn't much for divers to see in this particular spot in the Gulf of Mexico – basically only part of the ship's steam engine.

But as time passed, the sand surrounding the wreck shifted. Maybe the busy 2005 hurricane season had something to do with it.

Maybe nearby dredging, designed to re-nourish Pinellas beaches, played a part.

In any event, when another group of divers associated with the Florida Aquarium took a look a few years ago -- thanks to a state grant -- it found substantially more was now visible.

"We went out and discovered the vast majority of the site had been uncovered," said Mike Terrell, the dive training supervisor for the aquarium. "We discovered the entire engine, the propeller and part of the boiler that exploded were exposed."

That's one major reason why the aquarium and a handful of archaeologists are asking the state to designate the shipwreck site Florida's 12th Underwater Archaeological Preserve.

A public meeting on the nomination is scheduled to be held at the aquarium tonight from 6 to 8 p.m.

One point of the meeting is to gauge whether there is enough public support for the designation, said Franklin Price, senior archaeologist for the state's Underwater Archaeology Program.

"If people don't support it, we wouldn't make it a preserve," he said.

Roger Smith, the supervisor of the state's Underwater Archaeology Program, said a preserve – or "museum at sea'' – is intended to protect a wreck and foster historical appreciation for it.

"There are some incredible shipwrecks in Florida," Smith said. "The designation means it's a formal Florida historical site."

However, the designation won't mean new restrictions for divers, Smith said. In fact, brochures on the preserves are usually put together and made available to dive shops and dive charters, which can use them as a selling point for expeditions.