The Life Aquatic

Brenda Lanzendorf's underwater excavations reveal Biscayne Bay's secret past

In the distance, Miami's glass towers twinkle faintly, hovering above the opalescent waters of Biscayne Bay. Here, at a closely guarded azimuth, slight waves slap against a 25-foot Boston Whaler. "Look closely," Brenda Lanzendorf says as she points from the bow, her grin spreading wide the crow's feet around her eyes. Sure enough, there they are, just below the surface, hulking shadows undulating with the gentle current: the remnants of the St. Lucie, one of Florida's worst maritime disasters.

Sun-bleached hair spilling from under her green park service cap, Lanzendorf gazes into the water as occasional clouds form and disappear on the horizon like puffs of smoke from a cap gun. The previous night had been a blur of champagne and caviar, a rare splurge with a girlfriend in Key Largo. Today Lanzendorf is nibbling on beef jerky and sipping bottled water.

A New Hampshire native and former US Airways flight attendant, Lanzendorf is the sole marine archaeologist for Biscayne National Park's 256 square miles of shallows, an area larger than Singapore that stretches from Key Largo to Key Biscayne. The bay and its reefs are believed to hold at least 76 shipwreck sites. For Lanzendorf, the quest to find and study these wrecks — unread pages in an epic history of slavery, piracy, war, commerce, and contraband — is all-consuming. "I will never, ever, ever leave this park," the 47-year-old says.

Photo courtesy National Park Service
A diver on the site of the Mandalay
Photo courtesy National Park Service
A diver on the site of the Mandalay

More than three decades after the National Park Service began documenting underwater sites here, only fourteen percent of the bay has been surveyed. So far this nautical graveyard has revealed 43 shipwreck sites, including an early eighteenth-century treasure galleon from halfway across the world, a late-twentieth-century sailing sloop from up the coast, and the remains of a rum-running ship from who knows where. With help from park rangers and volunteers, Lanzendorf has fully documented seven of these sites while carrying out basic but incomplete studies of another fifteen. Little more than location is known of the remaining 21 identified wrecks.

Their secrets buried under sediment and sea grass, dozens of wrecks — some of them possibly dating to the Sixteenth Century — are waiting to be discovered.

Somewhere out there, Lanzendorf believes, is the wreck of a nineteenth-century Spanish slave ship that went down with some of its human cargo, destined to become a national memorial if found. Somewhere out there are stories waiting to be revealed by the next sand-shifting tropical storm.

Instead of suiting up to dive for these mysteries, Lanzendorf finds herself behind a computer most days, scrounging for grant money and searching for volunteer help. Apart from Lanzendorf's salary (between $54,000 and $70,000, although she declines to say), the cultural resources budget at Biscayne National Park amounts to $500. "It's for copying costs, you know, to buy a stapler," Lanzendorf says as she burns through a Benson & Hedges Light.

Sitting at the helm, Lanzendorf holds the boat's wheel with one hand and a global positioning system with the other. Her bare feet rest against the console. She speaks in an energetic, slightly raspy stream of words, using "kick-butt" as an adjective and chiding from a distance the wealthy thrill seekers whose cigarette boats thunder across the bay: "You can hear them, and you can almost hear their gold chains hitting each other."

An animal lover, Lanzendorf lives in Homestead with her Labrador retrievers Maggie and Brandy, but can't stand the sprawling subdivisions enveloping the once-rural enclave. She escapes to the bay or to the Keys, to the water where she feels most comfortable.

Lanzendorf came to her avocation fairly recently. Toward the end of her thirteen years working as a stewardess, she had lived for layovers in places such as Micronesia and Palau, where she would dive on wreck sites. They were so quiet, so other-worldly. She marveled at the aquatic life. She was enchanted by the romance of the sites. At the time, she thought little about the potential for archaeology.

Not until a friend suggested Lanzendorf might combine her twin loves, history and diving, did she zero in on underwater archaeology. At age 35, Lanzendorf enrolled in an underwater archaeology doctoral program at Brown University after having earned her undergraduate degree in prehistoric land-based archaeology at the University of New Hampshire. At Brown, Lanzendorf wrote her dissertation on the maritime economies of the Florida Keys, doing field work on the archipelago and working at Dry Tortugas National Park during summer breaks. "I was constantly told there's no money in archaeology, and there certainly aren't any female underwater archaeologists." In 1998 Lanzendorf became the first permanent full-time cultural resources manager at Biscayne, the largest marine park in the country and home to the third-largest coral reef system on Earth.

On his quest for the Fountain of Youth in 1513, Ponce de Leon was among the first to sail these treacherous waters. The years that followed brought a steady stream of vessels looking to harness the Florida Straits' strong winds and Gulf Stream currents on their voyages from Europe and North America to the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the Gulf of Mexico. It was an often perilous journey along narrow, shallow channels buffeted by frequent hurricanes. Poor navigational tools, outmoded ships, and more than a few drunken captains brought many a craft onto the unforgiving coral reefs, where they foundered and sank. "They're like 500 years of bad intersections," Lanzendorf says of the reefs that ring the park's eastern boundary.

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