The Keys’ most treacherous reef is a scenic delight

A satellite view shows the Carysfort Reef Light, just right of  center, surrounded by an abundance of coral on a broad reef tract.
A satellite view shows the Carysfort Reef Light, just right of center, surrounded by an abundance of coral on a broad reef tract.

OFF KEY LARGO — While thousands of reefs grow in the turquoise waters encompassing the Florida Keys, Carysfort Reef is the single most dangerous tract of coral in the chain.

Salty seafarers once whispered of strange phenomenon and the southernmost reaches of the Bermuda Triangle, but the simpler explanation for the inordinately high percentage of shipwrecks was always coral, lots and lots of coral.

At four miles in length, Carysfort Reef is not only one of the largest, but one of the most mature reefs in the chain. The light meringue left behind when the Atlantic washes over the reef is evidence something is waiting just beneath the surface. Once upon a time, verdant forests of elkhorn and staghorn corals were reaching up with limestone daggers.

The reef grows six miles off the coast of North Key Largo and is the site of the oldest recorded North American shipwreck. The H.M.S. Winchester, en route from Jamaica to England, was a 60-gun battleship captained by Edward Bibb when, along with all but a handful of the crew, he suffered from scurvy and was relieved of duty. John Soule was commanding the British warship on September 24, 1695 when she was blown off course during a storm and impaled by the coral.

The H.M.S. Carrysford left the most indelible mark on the reef when the corals snagged the hull of the 118-foot-long, 28-gun British frigate, on October 23, 1770. She never sank, but was refloated and sailed away from the incident. Maybe it was the rough translation of dialect or a simple case of bastardization, but the spelling left behind was “Carysfort,” hence the reef’s name today.

Lighting the way

The first attempt to mark the reef using a light source was the lightship Caesar, a 220-ton, two-lantern schooner built in New York by Henry Eckford. Congress allocated $20,000 for the project in 1824 and the ship left New York bound for the Florida Reef the following year. The lanterns attached to each of the double masts were designed to be visible for a distance of 12 miles. As well, clanking bells echoed across the ocean’s surface with every roll of the tide.

Sailing from New York, the Caesar encountered squally weather and was driven ashore by high winds and nasty seas somewhere near Key Biscayne.

The transport crew abandoned the ship, later salvaged by wreckers and brought to Key West for repairs. John Whalton, her new captain, was waiting at the dock. After the Caesar was restocked and crewed, Captain Whalton sailed her to Turtle Harbor, a safe anchorage near Carysfort. In the end, Captain Whalton and the Caesar would both make the annals of history, though for very different reasons.

Light ships were not foolproof enterprises. Even after the Caesar anchored at its post, ships regularly managed to come unexpectedly upon the corals. The Guerrero was one of the more unsavory of these. The Spanish slave ship had 561 African slaves in her hold when she attempted to outrun the British warship H.M.S. Nimble.

Captain John Whalton heard the exchange of cannon fire between the two vessels. “I saw the flash,” he noted, “and heard the report of seven or eight guns.” The Guerrero slammed into the reef on December 19, 1827 with sufficient force to snap her twin masts. Forty slaves drowned in the holds. The Nimble, too, ran aground that night, but would be refloated and sail away relatively unscathed.

The remarkable thing about the Caesar was how quickly the vessel succumbed to the environment. A paltry six years into service, she was sailed to Key West for inspection. It would not go well. The Collector of Customs who surveyed the ship said its timbers were “an entire mass of dry rot and fungus.” He wrote in his report, “I must say that there never was a grosser imposition practiced than by the contractor in this instance.”

Congress again allotted $20,000 for another lightship and the Florida was constructed by the same builder in New York, though this time with rot-resistant live oak timber. Whalton took command of the Florida and resumed his post at Turtle Harbor. Early on he realized that supply ships could prove intermittent and as such, maintained a garden of fruits and vegetables on a clearing of land on North Key Largo.

Garden Cove killings

It was June 26, 1837 when Captain Whalton and four of his crew lowered a boat from the Florida, manned the oars, and paddled ashore to tend the garden. They rowed in and secured the boat, but when they stepped on to land, were greeted by the gunfire of Seminole Indian warriors. Whalton and one of his crew were killed and scalped. The act would help mark the beginning of the Second Seminole War. The area, near Mile Marker 106 today, is still known as Garden Cove.

Even with the lightships, Carysfort was still a terribly dangerous reef. From 1833 to 1841, of the 324 shipwrecks reported on the Florida Reef, 63 wrecks — 20 percent — were attributed to Carysfort Reef. One of the reasons for this bloated number may be that during those early years of sailing, Carysfort was used as a generic term for North Key Largo wrecks. It wasn’t, however, the only reason.

Another might best be summed up in a letter dated July of 1851, written by Lt. David D. Porter, U.S.N., and commander of the U.S. mail-steamer Georgia. “On the reef near Cape Large,” he wrote, “the floating lightship, showing two lights, intended to be seen twelve miles, but they are scarcely discernible from the outer ledge of Carysfort Reef, which is from four to five miles distant. On to[sic] occasions I have passed it at night, when the lights were either very dim or not lighted.”

By this time, light ships were nearly a moot point at Carysfort. Congress allocated funds for the construction of a permanent light in 1848. Captain Howard Stansbury of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers first took command of the project and managed to set the 112-foot tower into place before retiring from the project. Major Thomas B. Linnard took command, but died shortly thereafter. It was Lieutenant George Meade who finished the job in 1852. Civil War enthusiasts may recognize Meade, who would be promoted up the chain of command to Major General. Meade helped defeat General Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg.

The oldest beacon

Carysfort Light, a screw-pile structure, was the first of its kind in Florida and remains the oldest beacon left marking the reef. The iron giant was also home to the men tending the light’s constant need. With the history of the reef, it should come as no surprise that claims of haunting were reported. One “ghost” was said to be a “great sinner” in his natural life and subsequent light keepers were prone to keeping an open bible inside the structure to help thwart devilish intrusions.

Charles Brookfield, a Key Largo fisherman, spent a night at the light in 1927. He was startled awake by a human-like shriek reverberating through the structure. When the ghoulish sound repeated itself, Brookfield grabbed his flashlight and ran up the spiral staircase where Keeper Jenks was working. When asked if he’d heard anything strange, Jenks replied, “That’s old Captain Johnson. You know he died aboard this light, and he still comes around at night and groans.” Brookfield was not totally convinced and postulated that the screech was the result of metal expanding and contracting due to temperature fluctuations. It certainly explained why the “ghost” only appeared in the hot summer months.

In 1939, the Presidential Reorganization Act incorporated all lights and lighthouses into the U.S. Coast Guard. “Coastie” Frank Taylor was 21 when he was assigned to the light in 1957. In an interview with Marjorie Doughty, Taylor reflected about the first time he saw Carysfort. He said, “it was almost like I was being taken to Alcatraz.”

While life aboard the light could be tedious, it was not all work and no play. Taylor recalled learning to snorkel. “Allen Riddle of Atlantic city taught me. He was really down to earth. He knew everything about snorkeling. We got to be pretty tight and he showed me how to go down at night with a shark hook. That was great because there was really nothing to do. We did a little scraping and painting, had a small black and white television with bad reception and there were a few books. So, I learned to catch fish with a spear gun and we would look at the fisherman and call them ‘worm drowners.’”

Carysfort Light was automated in 1960. The last major wreck was the Alec Owen Maitland. Despite the fact that the massive light was in operation, the captain of the 155-foot, 244-ton vessel still managed to lodge it atop the shallow reef on October 24, 1989. He then made the worst possible decision, putting the ship in reverse and trying to power off the corals. A substantial swath of reef was crushed and destroyed in the process. When the crater-sized holes left behind threatened to undermine the stability of the reef, Harold Hudson, affectionately referred to in these parts as the Reef Doctor, repaired and restructured the reef using concrete slabs.

Festooned with corals

Even though it has taken a beating over the years, decades, centuries, Carysfort makes for an amazing snorkel. The reef’s close proximity to the Gulf Stream means that visibility is generally excellent, and its northern location is part of the reason Carysfort remains one of the healthier reefs in the chain. Perhaps because it is not regularly visited by the Key Largo charter trade, the reef is still festooned with a broad expanse of hard and soft corals as well as a resurging sponge population.

Explore the shallows surrounding the base of the light for a mesmerizing view of the minutia of worms and crustaceans that decorate the coral reef. In addition to the ample supply of bi-colored damselfish and blue-headed wrasses, butterfly fish and angels, the reef is home to large schools of the usual collection of snappers, grunts, and parrotfish. Spotted eagle rays and turtles are also common visitors.

The reef grows in 5 to 25 feet of water. However, care should be taken when snorkeling near the shallowest coral beds. All it takes is one swell of the ocean to push a body over the sharp limestone substrate. Do not attempt to snorkel across these shallow beds, especially at low tide. While the vast forests of elkorn and staghorn coral that made this reef infamous don’t flourish the way they used to, brilliant stands remain.