Florida’s Underwater Archeological Preserves: The SS Copenhagen

There are 12 designated Underwater Archaeological Preserves in Florida, scattered from the far northwestern Panhandle down to the Florida Keys. Find out what makes these shipwrecks so special. 

By guest author Franklin H. Price, archaeologist with the Florida Department of State

One calm May morning in 1900, the twin-hulled steam freighter SS Copenhagen ran into a reef, ¾-mile off the coast of present-day Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Due to a navigational error, both hulls were punctured, and the giant steel vessel lay helpless in 15 feet of water.

The freighter, built by the British when that country dominated sea commerce, was a forerunner in naval design, a transition between the round-hulled sailing vessels of the 19th century and the giant cargo carriers of today. The ship, 325 feet long and 47 feet wide, bore a strong resemblance to modern vessels, with four cargo holds, a tall smokestack and a prominent superstructure.

When the Copenhagen hit the reef, the south Florida coast was wild, with the road to Fort Lauderdale reportedly rife with rattlesnakes, mosquitoes and alligators. A salvage team was deployed to reclaim the ship, but just as they were finishing their work, the team was called off to Hoboken, New Jersey, to respond to a terrible dockside fire. Despite their valiant efforts, the SS Copenhagen was left to the elements. The hulk lay bare above the waterline, and some 40 years later it was used for aerial target practice during World War II.

Today, divers can see the structure spread along the seafloor, with recognizable features such as an anchor; the donkey boiler, which ran the equipment for unloading cargo; the pillow block, which supported the propeller shaft; the cargo boom, which helped load and unload cargo; and the double hull amid a reef teeming with sea life.

The SS Copenhagen Preserve can be found 3.6 miles south of Hillsboro Inlet, in 15 to 30 feet of water, ¾-mile off Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. Visitors to the site should look for a concrete monument with a bronze plaque celebrating the shipwreck’s story, and an anchor placed nearby. As with so many Florida shipwrecks, the site is also home to a wide variety of sea life, from tropical fish to moray eels, and sea fans to nurse sharks.

In 1994, the Copenhagen was given new life as one of Florida’s 12 underwater archaeological preserves, with a history rich enough to include it on the National Register of Historic Places.  There are underwater archaeological parks and preserves around the United States, including sites in Michigan, Vermont, New York, North Carolina and California. Worldwide, there are similarly interpreted and protected shipwrecks in Australia, the United Kingdom, Croatia, and Italy, to name a few. Each of Florida’s 12 underwater archaeological preserves, also known as Museums in the Sea , is chosen and nominated by a member of the public or an organization. Florida’s Museums in the Sea have been nominated by divers, historic commissions and even a schoolteacher.

After nomination, each shipwreck is assessed by state archaeologists to see if the site is historically identifiable, has recognizable features, biological diversity, safe diving conditions and is accessible to the public. Because the Florida Department of State administers the program here, only those wrecks technically within Florida’s waters are eligible to become preserves or museums. Once the site has been vetted and designated as a preserve, the state interprets the shipwreck for the public by creating brochures, an underwater guide for divers, and a webpage with videos, which provide an introduction to the structure and its history, as well as the biology of each site. Local waterfront communities and the nominating entity then adopt the wreck and become stewards of the site, visiting, monitoring and enjoying the shipwreck.

The community has responded to SS Copenhagen in a big way. In addition to the materials provided by the State of Florida, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea has commemorated SS Copenhagen with two shore-side plaques, diving guides printed on waterproof paper, a commissioned illustration, promotional T-shirts and even artwork of the shipwreck on one of the city’s utility boxes. “The town is thrilled to have a shipwreck that is a state archaeological preserve and also listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” says Steve D’Oliveira, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea public information officer. “We’re very proud of our maritime heritage.”

Local dive shops continue to make the site a regular destination, with an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 divers and snorkelers visiting annually. For some area dive companies, visits to SS Copenhagen are a substantial part of their business. “Since the wreck is only in 25 feet of water, Copenhagen is a great site for new divers to explore,” says D’Oliveira. “The anchor is popular with photographers. You can really see how the ship has become part of the coral reef it struck back in 1900.”

For more about SS Copenhagen or any of Florida’s 12 Underwater Archaeological Preserves, check out the Museums in the Sea webpage.