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Tragic history tied into watery trail

Associated Press
Published July 11, 2005

BISCAYNE NATIONAL PARK - After four decades under the sea, the schooner Mandalay has lost its graceful shape and every fitting that could be pried from its broken hull.

But the 112-foot ship, which ripped open running across Long Reef near Elliott Key, has gained another kind of allure. Shimmering clouds of fish surround the rusting steel skeleton encrusted with hard corals and soft sea fans.

In Biscayne National Park, the most spectacular scenery is underwater - but not all of it is natural. At least 50 shipwrecks, from 50 to 300 years old, rest in park waters. While some have long been unnamed marks on nautical charts, many people don't know their origins or that they exist at all.

After years of research, park managers are putting the finishing touches on an underwater "heritage trail" that will make it easier to both locate and learn about one of the richest collections of shipwrecks in the country.

"Very few people realize there is this valuable historical resource in their backyard," said Brenda Lanzendorf, Biscayne's archaeologist. "We have some pretty awesome wrecks. We have Spanish gold fleets and British warships from the 18th century and 20th century freighters."

The initial trail will mark five wrecks with mooring buoys and provide snorkelers and divers with short histories of the ships and detailed diagrams on waterproof cards of what they'll see at wreck sites. Work on three of the sites could be done by December; the remaining two by next summer.

The park will produce free pamphlets for visitors about the sites, and booklets at a nominal cost with longer histories of the five ships, documenting everything from where they were built to what they carried to how they sank in what Lanzendorf called "ship traps" - the treacherous shallow reefs that stretch from Key Biscayne to the Florida Keys.

The first five ships include four large steamers - the Alicia, Lugano, Erl King and what is believed to be the Arratoon Apcar. They went down between 1878 and 1913 from Fowey Light south to Ajax Reef, all in a line about 3 miles east of Elliott Key.

The fifth, the Mandalay, was a double-masted sailboat. It ran aground on New Year's Eve 1966, at the end of a 10-day sail when the skipper miscalculated his course. Passengers and crew were rescued, but the ship was quickly stripped by looters and salvors, then pummeled by rough seas before breaking up.

Resting in only 10 feet of water, it may be the prettiest wreck dive in the park - and one of the easiest to snorkel. Large sections of the ship remain intact and a huge fuel tank rises so high that waves sometimes break over it.

Just don't expect to find a king's ransom like treasure hunter Mel Fisher. For one thing, you can't legally remove anything from a national park - not even a rusty bolt.

The reality is that every known site in the park has been picked over - including at least one ship thought to have been part of the ill-starred 1733 Spanish gold fleet, which hurricanes dashed off South Florida.

For historians, the wrecks provide clues to everything from shipbuilding techniques to trade and cultural exchanges. Before putting them on wider public display, teams of volunteers have been diving the sites armed with sophisticated gear to precisely measure and record the position of every jagged ship fragment.

Along with the 50 shipwrecks, the park has dozens of other underwater archaeological sites, including one with 200-year-old British cannons. But most of the sites are still unsurveyed.

Lanzendorf said the park plans to add more sites in coming years, in hopes of creating a trail that would extend through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, which has had a nine-ship trail since 1999, all the way to Dry Tortuga National Park, which is working on a trail of its own.

[Last modified July 11, 2005, 01:00:09]

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