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 -- remain 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 -- along with their decades of expedition and underwater experience.