- Associated Press - Saturday, January 9, 2016

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) - If the ocean had highways, the intersection at the Dry Tortugas and the Florida Straits might well have ranked among the planet’s most dangerous, at least in ye olde times.

Ships threading its treacherous reefs wrecked for centuries, sometimes at a rate of once a week, leaving behind an untold fortune in booty. Key West was built on a good chunk of those spoils. And modern-day treasure hunters still scour the region in search of loot. Which is why the National Park Service, guardian of a vast swath of potentially wreck-laden waters in Dry Tortugas National Park, has for the first time started surveying the deep waters within its boundaries.

While no one knows for sure what remains on the sea floor, it could be bountiful: since 1988, federal law has largely blocked treasure hunters armed with new technology that one marine archaeologist says has allowed any “half-wit” to strike gold.

“Can you imagine what would have happened if 120 years ago every archaeological site in Egypt had been dug up?” said Filipe Castro, a professor of nautical archeology and director of the Ship Reconstruction Laboratory at Texas A&M.;

Park officials hope to preserve what’s left of the historical record of what was once a main thoroughfare between the old world and the new. If possible, the survey could also add sites to an underwater trail of identified shipwrecks that stretches along Florida’s reef between the far islands and Miami.

So far, searchers have turned up two intact wrecks and a good deal of debris with no historic relevance: a cement mixer, a television console and more milk crates than they care to count.

“Probably 85 percent of the time it’s modern trash,” said Dave Conlin, chief of the agency’s Submerged Resources Center. “We’re finding the equivalent of pop tops and tin cans. But then the other 15 percent of time it’s an anchor or a cannon or very occasionally it’s a shipwreck.”

But treasure hunters, long at odds with the government over rights to salvaged ships, fear the survey is an attempt to stake out items that belong to claimed wrecks.

“We have a federal ruling from back in the ‘70s that if anybody does come upon stuff, we could claim it and would probably win in court,” said Joe Sweeney, director of administration for Mel Fisher’s Treasures.

From the 1950s to the ‘70s, Castro said most shallow wrecks were picked clean.

“They found cannons and silver coins, and put everything in their front yards,” he said.

Like the secrecy that shrouds treasure hunting, the park service is also reluctant to give details about its finds for fear wrecks will be illegally salvaged. The service also rarely removes anything from the wrecks, Conlin said, because officials would rather preserve what’s left intact.

If a wreck has objects easily removed, park officials keep it protected. If not, Conlin said his crew will recommend it be opened for diving. Only the widely popular Windjammer site and other smaller wrecks on shoals to the northeast of Fort Jefferson are now marked on park maps. Park officials are also shooting 3D imagery that will let them keep track of the wrecks in case of hurricanes or looting. The film will be used in a video for visitors at other more accessible places in Key West and at Everglades National Park.

Aside from treasure, the wrecks often provide an invaluable record of lives not often documented in history: the illiterate sailors and slaves often aboard ships.

“For hundreds of years, sailors were not generally literate, so the people who wrote stories about sailors were wealthy ship owners and captains, and they had a particular story to tell,” Conlin said. “So the archeology of shipwrecks is the archeology of everyday people who didn’t write. They didn’t leave a lot behind. But in the small things they did leave, we can come to some illuminating insights into how they lived their lives.”

The wrecks and artifacts within the park and other protected areas also become increasingly important as the number of untouched wrecks declines.

Until 1988, salvage laws governed wrecks, regardless of their historical importance. With little law enforcement on its staff, park waters were vulnerable to the same salvaging happening throughout the region despite rights spelled out in national park rules. But when Ronald Reagan spelled out protections for wrecks - prompted by Fisher’s famously persistent fight for his rights to the Atocha in protected waters in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary - that helped end widespread salvaging of historic wrecks in U.S. waters.

Because Fisher won his suit, Sweeney said the company’s claim extends to finds outside a 10-by-4 mile area in the sanctuary that could belong to the ship.

Surprised to hear about the mapping project, Sweeney said he asked around and no one else had heard about it either.

“Obviously if they find anything, we’d like to know because there’s still eight cannons and $350 million out there,” he said.

Castro, the Texas A&M; professor who has researched shipwrecks around the world, believes it is unlikely park officials will find wrecks not already picked over. But that shouldn’t stop researchers from looking.


Information from: The Miami Herald, https://www.herald.com

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