The Life Aquatic
Photo courtesy National Park Service

The Life Aquatic

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.


Brenda Lanzendorf

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.

Of all Biscayne's wrecks, the most deadly and the most fraught — if it does indeed lie here, as Lanzendorf believes — is the Guerrero.

The Guerrero was a Spanish pirate ship carrying an illegal load of 561 slaves from Africa to Cuba in December 1827, years after Spain, England, and the U.S. had abolished the trade. According to written reports, a British schooner on patrol, the HMS Nimble, gave chase on the afternoon of the nineteenth. After hours of scattered cannon fire between the ships, both grounded on reefs. The impact to the Guerrero, which had been sailing at top speed, was massive, rending a gash in its hull and crashing its mast through the deck. Trapped below decks, 41 men, women, and children died. Screams could be heard for two miles, according to written accounts.

Two wrecking crews and a fishing ship soon arrived from Key West to rescue survivors. It wasn't long, however, before the pirates hijacked two of the rescue boats and set sail for Cuban markets with most of the surviving slaves. About 100 of the rescued slaves were brought to America, where they worked on Florida plantations until an Act of Congress returned them to Africa a year later.

There are more subtle mysteries lurking too. Roger Smith, state underwater archaeologist at the Florida Bureau of Archaeological Research in Tallahassee, remembers being entranced by wreckage in a particularly shallow area of the bay called the Safety Valve. Little is known about the colonial-era ship that sank there. Smith was awed not only by the site's beauty amid living coral, but also the mystery of something in plain sight below just a few feet of water. "I never cease to be amazed," he says. "There are a lot of things that kind of don't show up in the historical record. You find things that are baffling sometimes."

Then there's the HMS Fowey, the only identified wreck absent from park maps and completely off-limits to the public. A 709-ton British warship that sank off Elliot Key in 1748, the Fowey has been the focus of regular study since its discovery in the Seventies, offering up chinaware, pewter plates, cutlass swords, 3000-pound cannons, wine bottles, and brass buckles.

Lanzendorf has revealed glimpses of nineteenth-century female sea captains, child labor on the high seas, and the economics of Florida's early wrecking industry through the study of ship hull structures, the remnants of sailors' quarters, and the way artifacts are scattered.

"People always say, 'You don't have gold, so that shipwreck isn't worth anything,'" Lanzendorf remarks. "The treasure isn't Spanish doubloons."

As a discipline, underwater archaeology is relatively new. Before the Seventies, the park service did little more than attempt to identify wrecks within its jurisdictions, largely ignoring their stories. Without a comprehensive history of the Florida Keys to refer to, Lanzendorf tries to fill spaces among the "vague generalities" that have been documented. "There's so much more to be learned. It's unbelievable. You never have the whole story, ever."

Although Lanzendorf occasionally brings up artifacts, such as the fully intact porcelain doll she recently recovered from an eighteenth- or nineteenth-century wreck, she leaves most of what she finds underwater, to be studied in context. "We can't even conceive of what questions scholars will ask in the future, but there is no reason to doubt that the answers will be found on shipwreck sites," she says.

"For people who've never been down there, it's like this whole new awakening," says Miami Dade College history professor Paul George. "We can always learn more [from shipwreck sites]. The frontier of knowledge should never be closed off."

As new technologies allow historians to probe deeper into wrecks, more unwritten history — even fairly recent history — is inevitably exposed, says Filipe Castro, a professor at Texas A&M University's well-respected Nautical Archaeology Program. "It's a measure of our ignorance that we know more about the Viking ships than we do about the Portuguese and Spanish ships of the Sixteenth Century," Castro says. Despite the fact that ships were "the most complex, sophisticated, and expensive machines man built until very recently," says Castro, little record remains of the technology and science involved in shipbuilding.

Unlike archaeological sites on land, shipwrecks often preserve under sediment organic materials such as clothing and food remains like corn cobs or seeds, says Marcie Renner, chief conservator of The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Historians don't have to worry about development swallowing up history, either — it's doubtful anyone will build a condo on top of a shipwreck.

"It's a time capsule," Renner says, "a microcosm of life at that time," unlike many land sites that were inhabited at various times through history. It's also an unusual record of average, working-class people: sailors, fishermen, salvagers. "A lot of history was written by the higher classes, if you will, or the winners," Renner says.

"The surface has only been scratched in Biscayne Bay," says Smith.

There's little money to scratch further.

Biscayne's base budget, $3.5 million in 2005, represents an increase of less than three percent since 2001. "All parks have struggled, but that's a glaring number," says Jason Bennis, marine policy manager at the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association. So rangers can do little to patrol wreck sites for looters, and Lanzendorf can only dream of inspecting each site annually, let alone examining more than a handful. Understandably the pace of wreck studies is slow. It would take four archaeologists about ten days to collect data from a single site, and then another month to process the data and begin to make sense of it. "And we don't have four underwater archaeologists," Lanzendorf says with a laugh. "We have me."

Most federal dollars that go to Biscayne are earmarked for the park's original mission of managing its pristine ecology, not studying cultural artifacts. At the park's visitor center, the only mention of Lanzendorf's work is a small photo and a single sentence: "Archaeologists uncover underwater secrets."

The secrets Lanzendorf has uncovered are mostly collecting dust. For want of staff, more than 90 percent of Biscayne's 700,000 archival items — wreck studies, maps, drawings, photographs, and artifacts — are uncatalogued and inaccessible at park service storage buildings.

Nancy Russell is the sole archivist for Biscayne as well as Dry Tortugas and Everglades National parks, Big Cypress National Monument, and De Soto National Memorial. At the South Florida Collections Management Center in the Everglades, Russell has her hands full battling silverfish that eat ink off pages, and cockroaches that eat, lay eggs on, and defecate all over documents in the climate-controlled storage areas. While it costs anywhere from 26 cents to $2.97 to preserve, catalogue, and store the average archival item or artifact, the park service budget allows for about a quarter of one cent per item. A cannon salvaged from the Fowey and displayed at Biscayne's visitor center requires $6000 to $7000 worth of conservation treatment every year.

"We've made an effort not to bring up artifacts unless we have a preservation plan that includes funding for the conservation treatment," Russell says, adding that no new underwater artifact has been brought in from Biscayne in three years. With only temporary interns and volunteers as assistants, Russell struggles to put a dent in the 30-year backlog of cataloguing work. "A lot of times, quite honestly, things are coming in faster than we can deal with," she says.

Although most of Biscayne's archives are with Russell, most of the park's thousands of shipwreck artifacts are stockpiled 500 miles away, in Tallahassee. Here at the park service's Southeast Archaeological Center (SEAC) are nine million archives and artifacts from 43 national parks throughout the Southeast and the Virgin Islands.

The center's staff has made "pretty steady progress" cataloguing Biscayne's relics, says collection database manager Brinnen Carter, in part because only a handful are sent in every year. Carter plans to begin posting photographs of the artifacts to SEAC's Website.

People who want to see the real thing will soon have another option. Plans for a Maritime Heritage Trail, long in the works at Biscayne, will likely come to fruition by the end of the year, Lanzendorf says. Mooring buoys will mark five wrecks on the park's eastern edge — four large steamers from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, as well as the double-masted Mandalay, a sailboat in the Windjammer Cruises fleet that sank in ten-foot-deep water in 1966. Waterproof cards will show site diagrams and historical information to guide divers and snorkelers through the wrecks.

After a day out on the bay, Lanzendorf turns the Boston Whaler around and heads for shore. Pelicans in V formation hover overhead, and a lone anhinga, suddenly finding itself in the boat's path, beats the water with its wings. One of the two 175-horsepower outboards sputters. Moments later, the overheat alarm sounds. Lanzendorf kills the ailing engine and cruises on half power, back over the site of the St. Lucie's demise. It is relatively close to shore, about ten minutes out, but largely unstudied.

According to written accounts, the St. Lucie — carrying construction equipment and workers to Henry Flagler's Overseas Railroad — left Miami October 17, 1906, as storm clouds gathered. In the dark morning hours of the next day, hurricane gales out of the southwest ripped the boat apart and sent it down. Survivors struggled to find anything that would float. In the days that followed, more than 30 bodies washed up on nearby keys. While the steamer's hull was eventually raised and repaired, much of the ship's superstructure and untold personal effects of the 120 passengers and crew remained behind, scattered on the sandy bottom.

"We haven't gotten to it yet," Lanzendorf shouts, struggling to be heard against the wind.

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