In Biscayne National Park, African-American divers connect with an elusive past.
By Amy Leinbach Marquis
Six years ago, Kenneth Stewart didn’t know much about national parks. A copy machine repairman from Nashville, Tennessee, his SCUBA diving hobby took him to coral reefs and shipwrecks all over the world—but he wasn’t connecting to the stories behind those places. After 20 years, he started to get bored.
Then in 2004, he came across a film called The Guerrero Project, which documented the search for a 19th-century Spanish ship that wrecked on a reef while illegally transporting 561 African slaves. Many believe the Guerrero rests somewhere in Florida’s Biscayne National Park, but its wreckage has so far eluded both park rangers and the treasure-hunting community.
Stewart wanted in on the search. But it wasn’t just the history that intrigued him. For the first time in his diving career, he learned that treasure hunters like himself were threatening the preservation of human history—a message driven home in the film by Brenda Lanzendorf, Biscayne’s sole underwater archaeologist. This was his chance to give back.
So the following year, Stewart led a group of young divers from the Tennessee Aquatic Program (TAP) on a trip to Biscayne to meet Lanzendorf. “Brenda’s passion was infectious,” Stewart says. “When she said she was the only archaeologist in the park, I got to thinking about how we could help.”
As the southern regional representative of the National Association of Black SCUBA Divers, Stewart had a long list of potential volunteers at his fingertips. So he sent an email, encouraging them to “dive with a purpose.” The response was immediate, and the following April, ten divers gave their own time and money to fly to Biscayne, train under Lanzendorf, and begin mapping one of the 91 undocumented wrecks on Biscayne’s ocean floor.
The program, called Diving With a Purpose, is now in its fifth year and couldn’t be more welcome in an understaffed park that has struggled to keep historical underwater sites intact. Because ships tend to wreck on coral reefs, their remains often lie in fairly shallow water, where recreational divers and even snorkelers can pocket artifacts with little risk of being caught. But most of those objects, even when put through a meticulous preservation process, perish quickly once they’re above water. “Many of these artifacts have lasted for 200 to 300 years underwater, and they’ll probably last for another 200 to 300 years underwater,” says Richard Curry, Biscayne’s Ocean, Reef, and Science program manager. “So it’s the best place to keep them to ensure their preservation.” But that poses a problem for the Park Service. “What’s the sense of preserving something,” Curry says, “if the public can’t enjoy it?”
In response, Diving With a Purpose volunteers are helping Biscayne plot a maritime heritage trail that park visitors will eventually be able to navigate on their own, without harming the sites.
Lanzendorf identified seven potential sites to add to the trail, but her efforts ended tragically last April when she died of cancer. Still, her legacy lives on. Two scholarships have been established in her name—one to sponsor a young person interested in volunteering with Diving With a Purpose, and another to help minority youth obtain diving certifications.
“Brenda’s premise was that when young people get in touch with their history, it will make them think more clearly about what’s going on in their lives,” Stewart says. “With all the problems in the African-American community, this is one way to make a positive difference.”
Next year, the Diving With a Purpose trip will stretch two weeks instead of one, allowing volunteers to document an additional wreck site. And for those who can’t tolerate spending hours underwater in one spot—a requirement in the mapping process—there will be a new marine biology component, where volunteers can count and observe fish inhabiting the wreck sites. Divers could then look for those species in other waters to determine whether or not a wreck exists nearby.
Stewart is honoring Lanzendorf’s legacy well beyond Biscayne’s watery graves, too. This fall, he will lead TAP kids on a trip to Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park, where they will learn about the impressive role African-American slaves played as tour guides in the longest cave system in the world.
“Prior to Diving With a Purpose, I didn’t know a lot about the national parks,” Stewart says. “But because of Brenda, I began to realize how vast this system is. Now I’m an advocate of the parks. I can really appreciate what they offer.”