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A cannon and a 19th Century shipwreck were found off the Florida Keys last month

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary maritime heritage volunteer Cassie Qualls returns to the surface after investigating 19th century wreckage discovered on Alligator Reef near Islamorada.
Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary maritime heritage volunteer Cassie Qualls returns to the surface after investigating 19th century wreckage discovered on Alligator Reef near Islamorada.

Two important archaeological maritime discoveries were made off the Upper Florida Keys in October by citizens whom federal scientists credit with reporting, rather than disturbing, their finds.

Jennifer Kerr, owner of Sailfish Scuba, mile marker 103.1, was diving the Hannah M. Bell shipwreck off Key Largo when she noticed a cannon on Elbow Reef that is believed to be nearly 200 years old, according to the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, a federal agency that is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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Sailfish Scuba owner Jennifer Kerr swims past a newly-found cannon on Elbow Reef near Key Largo in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Matthew Lawrence/NOAA

“Sanctuary marine archaeologists believe it and a similar cannon nearby were likely jettisoned from a sinking ship crashing on the reef more than 100 years before the Hannah M. Bell sank in 1911,” Gena Parsons, sanctuary outreach manager, said in a statement.

The find comes the same month Homestead commercial trap fisherman Jose Antonio Lopez Ruiz was looking overboard from his vessel and spotted what turned out to be the wooden wreckage from an unidentified ship from the 19th century near Alligator Reef off Islamorada.

“A visit to the site by the sanctuary Maritime Heritage Team revealed a more than 50-foot section of wooden planks and frame partially buried in the sand,” Parsons said.

Parts of the wreckage had coral growing on it, so it was at least somewhat exposed, but Matthew Lawrence, a NOAA maritime archaeologist, said it may be more visible because Hurricane Irma shifted the sand in the area in September 2017.

“It’s not a total uncoverage by the storm, but it’s certainly part of the story,” Lawrence said Thursday.

The wreck lies in about 20 to 30 feet of water, he said.

The shallow waters off the Keys are rife with maritime historical clues of the island chain’s past. And, because of the difficulties of navigating the reef, hurricanes and other mishaps at sea, pieces of that history lie across large swaths of the ocean floor yet to be discovered.

But sanctuary officials urge those looking for cool finds of their own, as well as those who happen upon them, not to remove or even touch the items. Even finds that the sanctuary investigates, like the cannons and the wreck, will stay put, Parsons said.

“Kerr and Lopez recognized that they should not move, damage or disturb their finds, so they contacted the sanctuary. Providing location and descriptive information to the sanctuary creates an opportunity for study of artifacts that contribute to the Florida Keys’ rich maritime history,” Parsons said. “Both new discoveries will be the subject of further investigation, but will not be removed from sanctuary waters.”

Information about discoveries within the 2,900-square-mile sanctuary, which covers from south of Miami all the way west to the Dry Tortugas, can be sent to Lawrence at Matthew.Lawrence@NOAA.gov.

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