The water surrounding Florida is a graveyard for thousands of ships — casualties of shifting sands, coral reefs, and treacherous hurricanes. Today, these shipwrecks are time capsules that reflect the history of maritime trade, colonial expansion by sea, and the changing fortunes of European powers in the Americas.

European Ships and Colonial Expansion

European empires increased their colonial holdings by enhancing their naval power. Developments in ship design over the centuries are closely linked with the history of maritime warfare and rivalry among warring nations.

Perils of the Florida Passage

engraving of sea monsters
Sea monsters approach a 16th century ship.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum

In the Spanish colonial period, ships heading back to Europe sailed through the Straits of Florida on the Gulf Stream current. Hurricanes, shifting sands, and shallow waters made the passage between the Bahamas and Florida especially dangerous. Along with these real perils, European sailors feared sea monsters, creatures based more on fantasy than fact. In reality, pirates posed a more serious threat to ships than did the dreaded monsters.

Shipwreck Survivors and Salvage

Crews from Havana were often sent to salvage wrecked treasure ships during the colonial period. Florida Indians also salvaged materials from early shipwrecks, and sometimes captured the survivors. By the time Florida became a United States territory in 1821, shipwreck salvage had evolved into a profitable enterprise. State contracts now regulate the salvage business, once fraught with intrigue and banditry.

Underwater Archaeology

The primary goal of archaeologists is to retrieve information that allows us to understand the past. Underwater archaeology has been transformed in the second half of the twentieth century, not only by new technologies, but also by a profound shift in philosophical and professional identity. Rather than focusing on the salvage and sale of treasure, professional underwater archaeologists today excavate ships to learn about the history of past cultures.

Text taken from a temporary exhibit created by the Florida Museum of Natural History.