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NOAA Divers Partner with Volunteer Organization to Survey Shipwrecks

Jun 15
A volunteer diver documents information at an underwater shipwreck site.

A Diving With a Purpose (DWP) volunteer diver documents information on the site of what is believed to be the shipwreck of the Acorn on Elbow Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. DWP has partnered with the Office of Marine Sanctuaries to work with NOAA Divers on NOAA projects such as this one.

NOAA Divers and archaeologists Matt Lawrence of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS) and Brenda Altmeier of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary (FKNMS) are working with Diving With a Purpose (DWP), a volunteer organization focused on the conservation of submerged historical resources, to survey undocumented shipwrecks in FKNMS. The work is part of the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries partnership with DWP. This year, from June 5 through June 12, 2016, the volunteers mapped what archaeologists believe to be the steamship Acorn, lost on Elbow Reef in 1885.

This is the first year that the NOAA Divers and their partners have worked to survey this particular site. Last year, the divers completed their survey of the steamship Hannah M. Bell, which was also lost on Elbow Reef in 1911. The investigation of that site began in 2012 and DWP divers participated every subsequent year to finally complete the project in 2015, resulting in over $34,000 of in-kind volunteer service.

The historical research and site map created by DWP during this year’s survey will become a resource for sanctuary managers, dive shops, residents and visitors who enjoy and utilize Elbow Reef Sanctuary Preservation Area. For two days the 27 member team measured and trilaterated the ship's remains along the 163 foot baseline. The measurements were transferred onto a site map. Joining the class was NOAA Corps Officer LTJG Kelsey Jeffers who participated in the training to learn new skills and gain a better understanding about the cultural resource aspect of the sanctuary program.

A NOAA Diver swims over a shipwreck site

NOAA Diver and maritime archaeologist Matt Lawrence surveys the remains of a shipwreck believed to be the steamship Acorn at Elbow Reef in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. 

Data collected from the site will help NOAA to positively identify the name of the shipwreck. There were many groundings on Elbow Reef, but only three steel-hulled steamships were confirmed to be total losses: one has been identified as the City of Washington, and the other two were 315 feet (the Hannah M. Bell) and 165 feet long (the Acorn). The Quoque and the Tonawanda were lost on Elbow Reef too, but they had wooden hulls. The shipwreck surveyed by the divers this month was 163 feet long on the baseline and had a steel hull. Work is being performed under Survey and Inventory permit FKNMS-2016-037.

Each year, the surveys at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary are part of training in maritime archaeology offered to the DWP volunteers. The initial training includes a classroom session with lectures, trilateration training, and a hands-on field exercise on land on the first day. The students then put into practice their skills underwater, surveying the site during the day and transcribing their findings onto paper in the evenings.

This year brought together a student group from a wide variety of states, including Maryland, Washington, Florida, Tennessee, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, and California. The volunteers were professionals from all walks of life: medical doctors, teachers, archaeologists, and lawyers, among many others.

To learn more about Diving With a Purpose, visit their website at

Find out more about Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary at and the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries at



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