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What Lies Beneath: Underwater Archaeology in the Bay

The Florida Aquarium is charting new territory. Literally. With grant money from the state, Aquarium scientific divers are taking a look at what is on the bottom of the bay. What lies beneath?

That’s exactly what Billy Rae Morris, primary investigator and marine archeologist, wants to know.

“People will be shocked to find out what’s under the water,” said Morris. “We know there are several Civil War era shipwrecks in the waters around Tampa so we’ll be looking for those first.”

One of these shipwrecks, the U.S.S. Narcissus, sank off the coast of Egmont Key on January 3, 1866. All 30 Union soldiers on board went down with the ship when the boiler exploded after the ship rolled on a shoal.

The program’s goal is a three-part project that encompasses the search and discovery of what lies along the bottom of the bay, building an educational curriculum around the discoveries and using the discoveries to recreate shipwreck exhibits at the Aquarium.

Morris is an expert in the field with more than 20 years experience of underwater archeology in the waters off the Southeast United States and the Caribbean.

“First we’ll use a magnetometer to look for deposits of metal,” said Morris. “If we get a ‘ping’ we’ll use side scan sonar to paint a picture of what’s down there.”

If the picture proves intriguing enough, scientific divers go down to get a better look. All of the aquariums' scientific divers are NAUI certified. 

The diving and project logistics are coordinated by Dive Safety Officer, Casey Coy. “When we run across something the scanners find,” said Coy, “we’ll send a couple divers down to take a quick look. If there is something of interest, we’ll document the location and return to create thorough plans of the sites. There is potential for some extremely interesting discoveries with this project. No one really knows for sure.”

The high-tech endeavor relies upon scientific divers from the Aquarium staff and volunteer team over the next few years as areas of “interest” will need a more thorough examination.

Since the start of the project and the documentation of the Narcissus, two Confederate Blockade Runners have been discovered in the Hillsborough River. The Kate Dale, the first blockade runner found in Florida, is lying near Lowry Park and the Scottish Chief was located this past summer near the mouth of the river across from Blake High School.

Both of these vessels were owned by James McKay founder of the maritime industry in Tampa and burned in one of the only skirmishes of the Civil War in Tampa.

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