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Hitting Rock Bottom Again — Famous Key West Shipwrecks

Key West and shipwrecks go hand-in-hand, like key limes and pie, sandbars and beer, or taking a private Key West boat charter with Captain Zak and having a good time. 

Here’s a look at why there are so many shipwrecks in the Key West and what you should do about it.

Why Is Key West Famous for its Ship Wrecks?

Why does Key West have so many shipwrecks? There are several reasons ships have wrecked themselves off the Florida Keys, including good, old-fashioned boater boneheadedness. But, three primary factors have led to the area getting a reputation for its shipwrecks. 

  1. It’s near a busy shipping lane
  2. There are (or, at least, were) unmarked reefs many miles from shore
  3. Hurricanes

Shipping Along the Gulf Stream

Firstly, the Florida Straits are a busy shipping lane. This is true today, but it was even more important centuries ago during the age of sail. The Gulf Stream current runs north through the Straits, boosting any vessel trying to depart Central America or the Caribbean for points north or east toward Europe. 

During the time of conquistadores and various other crimes against humanity, the economies of several European nations were based on plundering and pillaging the riches they found in the Americas. They had to transport those riches back to Europe, and the best route was via the Florida Straits, past the Florida Keys and Key West. 

Dangerous Reefs

The next factor in Key West’s “favor” was the Florida Reef, beloved today for its scuba diving and fishing opportunities. But back then, sailors were terrified of this dangerous reef system and all those incredible sandbars around Key West.

 Reefs were poorly charted and unmarked and were a long way from land—basically out in the middle of the ocean. Ship navigators weren’t always good at their jobs since they didn’t have batteries to power their GPS. They actually didn’t even have GPS, so how anyone got anywhere is pretty incredible.


Key West Coral Reef


Finally, there was the problem of hurricanes. Today, we get several days or weeks’ notice before a storm. But back then, there were no satellite weather maps, no local news weathermen to get wound up and shout at us, no Home Depot to get in fights over batteries and plywood, and no marine radio for warnings to be sent by. A fast-moving storm could take ships by surprise, although good sea captains could tell a blow was coming a few hours in advance.


So, from the 17th to the early 20th centuries, ships traveling north past the Florida Keys faced a high-risk proposition. While their navigators might do a bang-up job and not hit anything, a surprise summer hurricane could blow them off course and onto the reef. This is how many of the biggest maritime disasters in the Florida Keys happened.  

Who Were the Wreckers?

Wrecking was once a big business in the Florida Keys, particularly Key West. The Key West wreckers were locals who salvaged a wreck as soon as it happened. In many cases, they helped rescue the survivors. The first licensed wrecker on the scene was put in charge, so it was a race to see who would get to the site first. The courts would award a percentage of the recovered cargo as compensation to the wreckers. 

Major Shipwrecks of the Florida Keys

While hundreds of shipwrecks are lying off the Keys, only a few are truly famous. 

Nuestra Señora de Atocha

The Atocha is, without a doubt, the most famous Florida Keys shipwreck. She was a Spanish treasure galleon lost in a 1622 hurricane along with her sistership, Santa Margarita. The ships were carrying gold, copper, silver, jewels, tobacco, and indigo from present-day Colombia, Panama, and Cuba back to Spain when they were pinned by the hurricane off the Keys. 

In total, eight ships from the convoy were lost in the waters around the Marquesa Keys and Dry Tortugas. The few surviving ships returned to Havana, and five more were dispatched to recover the lost cargo. Another hurricane interfered with recovery efforts, and Atocha was in water too deep to easily salvage. Most of Santa Margarita’s guns and treasures were recovered, but the Spanish had little luck finding or salvaging the Atocha

The wreck lay untouched until the 1970s when treasure hunter Mel Fisher and his team found the Atocha wreck after years of searching. The State of Florida attempted to claim the wreck and keep 25 percent of the findings. After years of litigation, the US Supreme Court awarded Fisher rights to everything he found in 1982.

Fisher’s company has continued to excavate the wreck. In 2011, they found an emerald ring estimated to be worth $500,000.

The Atocha is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most valuable shipwreck in history, carrying an estimated 40 tons of gold and silver and 32 kilos of emeralds. Many finds from the Atocha are on display at the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum on Greene Street. 

Shipwreck in Key West

Isaac Allerton

If you visit the Key West Shipwreck Museum, you’ll learn all about Isaac Allerton and see many artifacts from it. The Allerton was lost in a—you guessed it!—hurricane in 1856 off the Saddlebunch Keys near Key West. She was a 137-foot-long, square-rigged merchant cargo ship that worked all over the Caribbean.

The Allerton wrecked at the height of Key West’s wrecker period, and the crew was rescued after spending the night in the ship’s longboats. Wrecking courts awarded the salvors a $50,000 payout, making it the most valuable salvage job from that period.  

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1733 Spanish Plate Fleet

The Upper Keys also have their share of famous shipwrecks, many of which came from the 1733 Spanish Plate Fleet. All but one ship in the fleet was sunk by—any guesses?—yep, another hurricane. In total, 13 shipwrecks have been found around Islamorada and Plantation Key. The ships were carrying Mexican silver pesos and valuable porcelains from China. “Plate Fleet” derives from “plata,” Spanish for silver. 

The most famous ships from the 1733 fleet are the San Jose, San Pedro, and San Felipe. San Pedro was wrecked near Indian Key, and the site is now protected as an underwater archaeological preserve state park. The park is nearshore and shallow enough that you can snorkel it. A canon and an anchor are easily seen, along with the distinctive pile of coral-encrusted ballast stones on the bottom.

The Spanish salvaged most of the good stuff from the 1733 fleet in the years after the sinking. Most of the wrecks were rediscovered in the 1940s and 50s. Today, these wrecks lie within state parks and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, so removing artifacts is prohibited.


Key West Shipwrecks as Artificial Reefs

Wreck diving in Key West (and snorkeling, too, for that matter) is very popular. Wrecks make great reefs, collecting fish and corals after the sinking. Old ships are often sunk intentionally to make artificial reefs for diving or fishing. Intentional artificial reefs are cleaned of any hazardous material and sunk in a deliberate place. Accidental wrecks can occur anywhere. 

If you want to go wreck diving in Key West, there are a handful of well-known spots. The Vandenberg is the newest and best-known. The US Navy Ship General Hoyt S. Vandenberg was a Navy transport ship built in 1943. She was sunk as an artificial reef in 2009. The 502-foot-long ship lies in over 100 feet of water, making it a technical, deep scuba dive. 

Other popular deep dives include the Cayman Salvage Master, a 187-foot-long Coast Guard buoy tender in 90 feet of water, sunk in 1985. The Adolphus Busch Sr. is a 210-foot freighter that sank in 1998. Depths at the wreck range from 50 to 105 feet. Joe’s Tug is a harbor tug in 50 to 60 feet of water. 

These are just the popular and well-known spots that draw wreck divers from all over the world. There are also tons of other little spots, some very shallow, where you can snorkel around small boats and wrecks that have come ashore during storms. Wrecks are great spots to check out because Key West reef fish, lobster, and other critters love to make them their homes.

What Can You Do To Help?

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If you’re thinking about a career in wrecking, you should know that the money’s not in it anymore. Today, GPS and lighthouses help keep ships off the reefs, and maritime salvage laws are much more complicated. 

Alas, the shipwrecks of Key West require nothing from you. Your best bet, as the song says, is to put your toes in the water and ass in the sand. Book a sandbar charter or private snorkeling cruise today, and let Captain Zak worry about not hitting the reef.

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