When Matthew Kuehne dives to the sandy bottom of Pensacola Bay, he reaches back 450 years to Spaniard Don Tristan de Luna's hurricane-doomed effort to form the first colony in the present-day United States.
Archeologists say the buried hull of a ship from de Luna's fleet of 11 ships holds crucial clues to the 1559 expedition that sailed from Mexico to Florida's Panhandle.
That was six years before another Spanish explorer, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, founded St. Augustine, Fla., the oldest city in the United States.
The ship's discovery was announced in October after lead sheeting and pottery from the wreck site were matched to the de Luna expedition. Another ship in the fleet was found nearby in 1992.
Mr. Kuehne, a University of West Florida archeology student, has been diving from a barge anchored in the Gulf of Mexico to retrieve artifacts from the submerged ship.
He can only imagine what de Luna and his men would think of his modern-day exploration.
“I don't know if they would be honoured that we are out here digging up their stuff or if they would be embarrassed that their technology, their efforts at colonization, failed,” he said.
The two shipwrecks off Pensacola are the second-oldest discovered in U.S. waters. The oldest are a fleet of 1554 merchant ships that sank off Padre Island, Tex.
The West Florida archeology team has brought more than 800 artifacts from the new de Luna site to the surface, including pieces of olive jars used to transport food and wine, chunks of the ship's wood frame, cow bones, Spanish bricks and even tiny balls of mercury, used to extract gold from ore.
Of the 11 ships that departed from Veracruz, Mexico, on de Luna's expedition, seven ran aground in the water, one was blown ashore and three survived the storm, said John Bratten, a West Florida professor of maritime archeology.