Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves: San Pedro

There are 12 Underwater Archaeological Preserves in Florida, scattered from the northwestern Panhandle down to the Florida Keys. Today we visit the San Pedro.

The Florida Keys host all manner of wonderful dive sites. From reefs to wrecks, there is something for everyone. The Keys alone contain more than 1,200 artificial reefs. Many of these are modern vessels that were intentionally sunk to provide habitats for marine life and to attract divers. And on this spectacularly beautiful coast, there are also several fascinating historical wrecks. These met their fate due to groundings, equipment failures, or hurricanes. The San Pedro, one of Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves, is located south of Indian Key.

The history of San Pedro

San Pedro sailed in 1733 as part of a Spanish plate fleet, or flota. “Plate” came from the Spanish “plata,” meaning silver. This referred to the wealth that these ships carried from the New World. These fleets traveled throughout the Caribbean, picking up cargoes of silver, gold, animal hides, and porcelain on their way back to Spain. The 287-ton Dutch-built San Pedro was part of a 22-ship flota that sailed from Havana, Cuba in July 1733, bound for Spain. But as the fleet traversed the Straits of Florida, the weather turned, indicating a hurricane was imminent.

The captain ordered the ships to sail back to Havana for safety, but unfortunately, the hurricane struck a day later. This drove many ships aground along an 80-mile stretch of the Keys. Survivors built camps on shore and rescue vessels, along with salvage teams, came from Havana to recover the lost cargo and stranded crew. Those ships that could not be refloated and towed back to Havana were burned to the waterline to facilitate salvage efforts, which ultimately took several years.

Rediscovery of the San Pedro

The fleet slipped out of memory until the 1930s, when a fisherman led a professional helmet diver to a ballast pile off Plantation Key. The wreck happened to be the 1733 flota’s flagship, which reignited interest in locating and salvaging the wrecks. After much research, a period salvage map indicating the wrecks’ location was unearthed in Spanish archives. By the 1960s, modern treasure hunters had relocated and salvaged almost all of the 1733 fleet shipwrecks, including San Pedro. In all, treasure hunters removed a cannon, an anchor, gold and silver, rigging, and other artifacts from the area. Unfortunately, unchecked salvage, which Florida no longer allows, led to the loss of valuable historical and archaeological data.

Becoming an Underwater Archaeological Preserve

In 1989, San Pedro became the second Underwater Archaeological Preserve and the only one that’s also a state park. In the same year, a restoration crew placed a replica cement cannon and an anchor from a different 1733 shipwreck around the main ballast assemblage. This was meant to help reconstruct the site and add to its interpretation. The San Pedro is one of the most popular preserves and one of the oldest artificial reefs in the Keys. 

Diving the San Pedro 

San Pedro, located in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, is a complex ecosystem of marine life. It features hard corals, lobster, damselfish, butterflyfish, wrasse, and many others. The wreck lies in a white-sand pocket in 18 to 20 feet of water (5 to 6 m), and turtle grass surrounds the 90-by-30-foot ballast mound. Several mooring buoys on the perimeter prevent visitors from dragging anchors through the area. Keep an eye out for red ladrillos, or bricks, used in the ship’s galley. Look also for the plaque that designates the site as an Underwater Archaeological Preserve.

Check with local dive shops to pick up brochures and an underwater guide. While visiting these living remains, please remember that this historic shipwreck is a nonrenewable resource. Take only photos and leave only bubbles.

By guest author Melissa R. Price