Shipwrecks & Scuba Diving in Fort Lauderdale & Key West
By Greg Johnston
The waters off of Fort Lauderdale and the Keys hold many underwater ship wreck treasures for diving and snorkeling enthusiasts.
The ocean was flat and calm that day, much like the day the steamer Copenhagen met her fate. I was awestruck as I descended through the blue haze, touching down gently on the ghostly freighter.
She was registered at Glasgow, built in Sunderland, England and used for hauling cargo across the Atlantic. All these years later, I could easily snorkel down to her rib cage in less than 20 feet of water and swim through the maze of sea fans that cover her body. The steel hulled ship was 325 feet long and pulled a draft of 25 feet, five feet deeper than the depth of the water above the reef.
The Copenhagen was rigged full sail as a schooner and powered by three triple expansion steam engines. On May 20, 1900, she set sail on her fateful trip from Philadelphia bound for Havana, loaded with a cargo of coal. Six days later, she crashed full speed onto the reef just three-quarters of a mile east of Pompano Beach, which is north of Fort Lauderdale.
Stranded on the reef, the crew unloaded the schooner Copenhagen's cargo and then abandoned the ship. She floated high and dry for nearly forty years. During World War II, the U.S. Navy used her for target practice. They eventually sunk the Copenhagen so German U-boats couldn't use her as a shield to approach Florida's coast.
Much of the Copenhagen's structure has become part of the reef and the wreckage provides an ideal haven for marine life. She sits in only 15 to 20 feet of water, an easy depth for both divers and snorkelers. The site was designated as a Florida shipwreck preserve in June of 1994.
In addition to the ghostly Copenhagen, South Florida is known for its dozens of accessible shipwrecks. Stretching south from Deerfield Beach through Fort Lauderdale to the legendary Florida Keys, divers can choose from some of the most prolific reef and wreck systems in the country.
Scuba Diving Fort Lauderdale
Fort Lauderdale and surrounding Broward County offer divers a year-round underwater experience with easily accessible reefs and water temperatures that rarely drop below the mid-70s.
Just off the beaches of Fort Lauderdale, you'll find three separate coral reefs running parallel to the beach, each one divided by a sandy plateau. The first is shallow, typically in waters less than 15 feet deep. This is the most popular area for snorkeling. The second reef line is about 40 feet deep and attracts an abundance of marine life. The third is in more than 70 feet of water and is home to many of Fort Lauderdale's shipwrecks.
Since 1982, more than 80 artificial reefs have been sunk at various depths off the coast of Broward County. They're mostly artificial reef modules, ships and barges sunk to accommodate both fishermen and people scuba diving in Fort Lauderdale.
The Mercedes I: The most famous of Fort Lauderdale's wrecks is the 198-foot freighter Mercedes I, a ship that received national attention when it was blown ashore during a fierce November 1984 storm. I was one of the first divers lucky enough to explore the wreck after its celebrated sinking, and recently revisited it after nearly 16 years.
In 1992, Hurricane Andrew created almost as much havoc underwater as it did to the beaches. But I found the majestic Mercedes I still upright with a hard list to its starboard side in about 85 feet of water. The hull has collapsed, though the stern and wheelhouse are still attached to the rest of the wreck. A nearby coral garden as well as a ledge full of fish are adjacent to the wreck.
The Guy Harvey: Another popular wreck site for those scuba diving in Fort Lauderdale is the Guy Harvey, a 170-foot freighter sunk in 1997 and named after the well-known marine artist. Silhouettes painted by Harvey on the sides of the hull are gone but have been replaced by sea fans and sponges. The wreck sits on the bottom in 140 feet of water, far below the recreational diving limit. But advanced divers can explore the main deck and wheelhouse at 100 feet.
The Noula Express and the Sea Empress: I like to think of two other Broward County wrecks as the Beauty and the Beast. Just a stone's throw from each other, the Noula Express and the Sea Empress are two truly "fishy" wrecks.
The Noula Express was a Danish freighter sunk in 1987 in just 80 feet of water. It's a bit of an adventure because you can penetrate its cargo hold, full of thick schools of grunts, damselfish and bar jacks. I'm told a four-foot barracuda often cruises the wreck and frequently joins divers during their safety stop.
Visit the Sea Empress on the same dive or come back to enjoy it all by itself. This barge met its doom accidentally, when too many concrete conduits were loaded on its deck. Today, some very big sea creatures benefit from the mistake. Southern stingrays litter the sand flats around the barge. Divers have been known to get the jitters from the six-foot-long green moray eel that slithers in and out of the conduits when least expected.
The Donal McAllister: As far as scuba diving in Fort Lauderdale is concerned, this area is geographically blessed. The warm waters of the Gulfstream quickly transform artificial reefs into permanent marine homes. Recently, I dove the wreck of the Donal McAllister in less than 75 feet of water and was amazed at its makeover. This former New York harbor tugboat thrives with juvenile anemones, sponges and soft corals on its railings and decks. Divers can safely penetrate the cargo hold and frame themselves in the pilothouse windows with special friends like coneys and fairy basslets while snappers and horseye jacks cruise the wreck's perimeter.
Rodeo 25: The 215-foot Dutch freighter Rodeo 25 was sunk upright off Pompano Beach in about 120 feet of water in 1990 and was renamed in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Pompano Fishing Rodeo. You'll see baitfish, schools of amberjack and a resident barracuda on this wreck.
The Captain Dan: Originally a 175-foot U.S. Coast Guard buoy tender, the Captain Dan was sunk off Pompano Beach in 1990. Overgrown with corals, the Captain Dan sits in about 110 feet of water and the top deck is at a depth of about 75 feet. You'll see amberfish, jacks, large grouper, barracuda, baitfish and some tropical fish.
The Florida Keys & Key West Shipwreck Trail
The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary has established a Shipwreck Trail for divers and snorkelers to enjoy. The underwater trail stretches from Key Largo to Key West and includes nine shipwrecks chosen for their historic and marine habitat values. Each of the fascinating wrecks is marked with mooring buoys and local dive shops can provide complimentary brochures and underwater site guides about each location. The selected Key West shipwrecks and wrecks in the rest of the Keys represent more than 300 years of maritime history in the Keys.
One of the earliest wrecks is the Spanish vessel San Pedro, which sank off Islamorada during a hurricane in 1733. More than a century later, in 1889, the American three-masted bark, Adelaide Baker, sank off Duck Key. There are also several scuttled ships used for artificial reefs on the trail, including the Duane, Eagle, Thunderbolt and Amesbury.
Dive shops that can take you there
Red and white flags wave all over Southeast Florida, just waiting to take you to the best area wrecks. Check out the Greater Fort Lauderdale Dive Association or contact one of the dive businesses listed below.
- Pompano Dive Center
- South Florida Diving Headquarters, Pompano Beach
- SunStar Aquatic Services, Deerfield Beach
- Holiday Isle Dive Shop/Capt. Scuba, Islamorada
- Abyss Dive Center, Marathon