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Date: Mon, 15 Oct 2001 19:09:15

AUE Weekend Trip Report "Islamorada Wreck" Archaeological Investigation
October 13-14, 2001

The Association of Underwater Explorers (AUE) had visited the unidentified "Islamorada Wreck" several times over the past few months, during which time I had been able to obtain initial measurements and draft a preliminary site map. After recognizing the unique nature of this site, as well as the very intriguing features of the wreck itself, I informed the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS), as well as several of my friends that are underwater archaeologists, of our activities. The FKNMS were very interested in further documenting this wreck and made funding available for further investigation. The National Undersea Research Center (NURC) at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington and AUE quickly drafted a formal operations plan for the work on the wreck, which rests in approximately 230 feet of water. Divers from East Carolina University and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (University of Miami) would also participate in the project. I had worked with all of the divers before on other projects, so I looked forward to the reunion.

We all closely watched the weather during the week leading up to the research dives, hoping that the 25kt winds and 8-9 foot seas would quickly disappear. We rendezvoused at our wonderful accommodations at the Hampton Inn on Friday night, only to see the trees still wildly shaking in the stiff breeze. I felt for sure that even if we were able to make it to the site, that visibility would be blacked out due to the powder-like sediment that dominates the area; past explorations during calm weather provided a maximum of 30 feet of visibility, though the average had been perhaps 15 feet. The following morning after breakfast, we met at Bud N' Mary's Dive Center, loaded up the Coral Sea, and worked our way out to the site. As we motored out the channel, the pea green waters did not raise the morale of the group. Reaching the site, we were forced to wait for over an hour as a fishing boat was anchored directly over the wreck. I tried getting some sleep as we were tossed about in the confused 5-foot seas. After the boat departed the scene, I went ahead and secured our shot line in the wreck and the first team geared up for our dive. I was confident that I would descend to find zero visibility and be forced to foul the hook and abort the dive. Our team of four splashed into the water next to the shot line and dropped through the water column, with nary a trace of any current. Two scalloped hammerheads fled the scene as we descended to the wreck below. Around 150 feet, I anticipated the inevitable reduction in visibility, only to find that I could start to see the wreck appear before me. I started yelling through my regulator at our good fortune. It appeared that we had perhaps 50-60 feet of visibility, which was the most I had witnessed to date on this wreck. The hook was resting in the sand next to the port side hull, amidships. While the other team prepared the cameras, I raised the hook to the top deck to make retrieval easier for the second team. With my buddy orbiting around us on his scooter, I proceeded to escort the archaeologist and videographer around the wreck, pointing out all the cool artifacts. I highlighted the port side docking telegraph, and then prompted the team to follow me up towards the bow. We videoed a plate that had been found on a previous dive; after mapping its location and videoing the artifact in situ, it was placed in cloth and bagged for recovery. We then finned forward to inspect and measure the very odd ram-type bow. The twin-screw vessel is extremely narrow, and appears that it may have been very fast in its heyday. After obtaining some more measurements, we slowly finned aft. Due to the wonderful visibility, we were easily able to see the extensive debris out in the sand along the starboard side. Additionally, we were able to observe the numerous jewfish that reside on this wreck. We knew there were several specimens on this wreck, though we had only seen small numbers due to the poor visibility. However, today we could see that there were perhaps 25 jewfish about the wreck, several of them exceeding 250 pounds. The large fish hovered in and above the wreck, curious to our invasion.

After stopping off to inspect the starboard telegraph, a porcelain marine head, and some other neat features, we dropped off the hull and into the sand where the ships's binnacle and compass rest. I was trying to work the "grand tour" into our allotted 30-minute dive, so I prompted the other divers to keep up the pace as we finned over to the large brass spare screws, and then over to a bell-like object next to the hull. We then continued to the stern to observe the strange fantail and damaged running gear. After passing by the line of portholes in the hull, we eventually finished our tour back at the hook and slowly ascended up to our first decompression stop, whereupon we were joined by our support divers. Due to the lack of current, we were accompanied by large numbers of fish all the way to the surface. Blue runners, spadefish, bonito, and mackerel all flocked around as we leisurely passed the time in the 83-degree water.

After boarding the boat, we informed the second team that they were about to enjoy a fantastic dive. They quickly splashed in for their orientation dive. After their dive, they all exited the water with very wide grins as we prepared to head back to the dock. The archaeologist in charge of the investigation was as dumbfounded as we were following his initial dive. The attributes of the vessel are very strange indeed, and the warship-like bow produced a wide-suite of guesses from the divers as to its origin. After our debrief and initial planning for our return on Sunday, we drove up to Key Largo and the NURC facility to prepare our gasses for the next dives. After gas-mixing duty was wrapped up, we proceeded back to the hotel to shower and then rendezvous in the Outback for a very satisfying dinner.

The team repeated the ritual of loading the boat the following morning, and we again trekked out to the unidentified wreck. Sea conditions initially appeared the same or worse than the day before, though once at the site it appeared that things began to lay down as the day wore on. After securing the shot line, the first team splashed in order to obtain extensive profile and plan-view shots in order to produce a digital mosaic of the wreck. A couple of AUE divers each towed a videographer behind their scooters, making sweeps fore and aft over the site. The overcast conditions and increasing current presented some difficulties, but the divers eventually completed their tasks and shot bags for decompression due to the current.

I splashed in with the second team in order to obtain accurate length and beam measurements of the wreck. The hook was in the extreme stern, so after reaching the wreck and inspecting a nice green ceramic pitcher stashed in a little nook, I swam the dumb end of the tape with my buddy towards the bow. We had planned to use liftbags attached just above the wreck at documented datum points on the bow and stern, however the ever-increasing current negated the effectiveness of that tactic. We proceeded back towards the stern to decide on an alternate plan for obtaining the LOA, whereupon my buddy called our dive. I signaled the other team that we were departing the wreck and ascended up the line to complete our abbreviated decompression obligation. After the dive, we secured our gear and headed back to the dock. Unfortunately, several of the divers, including myself, were unable to stay and complete a third day of diving (work sucks). After a final debrief, we reluctantly hit the road for the long drive home.

As of yet, we still have not been able to determine the identity of the wreck. Hopefully, we will be able to use the china pattern to track down the shipping line and past owner of the vessel. Stay tuned...