On shallow Pickles Reef, 3 1/2 miles off the shore of Key Largo, the sun lit up a mishmash of metal, iron and barrel-shaped cement artifacts that have been commingling with colorful coral and tropical fish for a century or more.
As two curious spotted eagle rays cruised by, a group of divers from the Washington-based Maritime Archaeological and Historical Society surveyed the unidentified wreckage that hurricanes, tropical storms and strong currents have scattered over a site larger than a football field.
“Mother Nature has a way of mixing it up in a soup that is hard to sort out what we have,” the society’s president, Steven Anthony, said during a June trip to the Keys. “We are trying to put all that puzzle back together, like putting back together Humpty Dumpty, to solve the mystery.”
Is the submerged debris field primarily a single wreck, perhaps one of the 23 ships with names that include Lion, Mimi, SS Oxford and Hope of London that Key West Admiralty court records document as sunk, abandoned, lost or wrecked on that reef in the 1800s? Or is it the remnants of several wrecks, from different eras?
And are the numerous cement cylinders even connected to the wreckage? Or was it cargo a boat’s crew offloaded to lighten the load enough to get off the treacherous reef, which at some points is less than 10 feet deep?
“We don’t know, but we have enthusiastically been trying to pin this wreck down for a number of years now,” said Brenda S. Altmeier, program support specialist with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary — in which the wreck site is located.
Over the last few decades, the prevailing story told to divers and snorkelers has been that the wreck is that of a Civil War-era ship or barge that was carrying cement headed to Key West for the construction of Fort Jefferson or the Martello Towers.