TAMPA — Casey Coy stood on a boat on the Hillsborough River two weeks ago, monitoring the breathing of divers below and watching cars cruise along the interstate above.
"The thought struck me: I'm anchored over a sunken Civil War battleship, and these people are driving to and from work and have no idea what they're driving over," he said.
Coy, the dive director at the Florida Aquarium, hopes all that will change in coming years as the aquarium maps and explores shipwrecks and other underwater archaeological treasures in the Tampa Bay area.
So far, aquarium divers have discovered two Confederate blockade runners — the Scottish Chief and the Kate Dale — sunk in the Hillsborough River, a Union ship called the Narcissus and two unidentified wrecks near Egmont Key. Plans call for searching the Hillsborough River for a third blockade runner — the Noyes — next summer. The aquarium has three state grants of nearly $50,000 for the explorations.
Not every find a treasure
In the Colonial era, Spanish ships sailed to the region from Cuba to fish and returned to Havana with the booty to stock ships headed for Spain. Ships also stopped at what is now Ballast Point Park to load and unload ballast.
Early surveys have uncovered three targets near Ballast Point and two more closer to downtown for further exploration.
"There's for sure something there," Coy said.
On the other hand, it could be construction debris, Coy notes.
When searching for the Scottish Chief, divers detected metal in the river. It turned out to be a Volkswagen Bug. Another time, Coy grabbed a pair of legs and pulled back his hand in disgust, thinking the limbs belonged to a dead body. It was a mannequin.
Divers also found guns and knives, which they turned over to Tampa police, prompting help from city divers who had experience searching dark water.
Eventually, any historic discoveries will become part of the aquarium's exhibits.
"We're telling the Florida water story. But one of the parts of the story we don't often tell is the human part of it," Coy said. "A lot of that story is told underwater."
Underwater detective work
For Coy, 38, a history buff with a degree in graphic design, the excitement of the aquarium's new venture lies in the hidden secrets and submerged artifacts.
He imagines uncovering buttons, muskets, belt buckles and shoes from the 5 feet of mud that conceals much of the Scottish Chief.
Mike Terrell, 33, a Florida Aquarium marine archaeologist who describes himself as "a puzzle guy," gets a thrill from the detective work involved in exploring underwater archeological sites.
The story behind shipwrecks typically become the stuff of tales spun by recreational divers who swim around them as they evolve into artificial reefs over the years.
"The marine archaeologist comes in and, by documenting the wreck in what can be annoying detail, can determine the identity of the wreck and the story behind it," Terrell said.
That's done by examining construction details to determine the age and demise of the ship.
And sometimes, the final story contradicts even historical documents.
That was the case with the Scottish Chief, a ship owned by James McKay, who served as Tampa's mayor, Terrell said.
The ship was part of a fleet that had been running a Union blockade of Tampa to deliver supplies to the Confederacy.
Union sailors slipped ashore on Oct. 17, 1863, and marched to the Jean Street Shipyard near what is now Lowry Park, where they captured and burned the blockade runner in a battle.
The Scottish Chief was destroyed, according to the federal government's official record of the Civil War.
"That's the official record as told by the winners," Terrell said. "The whole goal of that campaign was to bring down James McKay and keep him from running the blockade. Of course, that's the report they were going to bring back to their bosses."
But the story handed down over the years by the family was that the ship had been burned, salvaged for parts and then sunk, which Terrell and other researchers confirmed by discovering that the engine and boiler — things that wouldn't have burned — were missing, but much of the ship was intact.
Unexplored waters around Tampa Bay
The aquarium's marine archaeology program got its sea legs four years ago when Coy and Terrell were training volunteer divers around the Regina, a World War II-era molasses barge off Bradenton Beach that is now a state-protected underwater preserve.
While talking with state underwater archaeologists that day, the conversation turned to what might lie under the Hillsborough River and around Tampa Bay, which have not been thoroughly explored.
"Nobody in their right mind does a recreational dive in the Hillsborough River or a shipping channel," Terrell said.
The aquarium has contracted with marine archaeologist John William Morris, 51, to help with the work. He has surveyed waters all along Florida's coast, including Pensacola Bay and St. Augustine, where he lives. "Florida's been pretty good in terms of material I've looked at," he said.
The problem: Much of the material was raided long before the state enacted regulations in the 1980s and 1990s to protect underwater finds.
"Treasure hunters have been raping the wrecks of Florida since the 1960s," he said.
The new rules embrace the fundamental principles of good archaeology. They include not breaking up items found at a site into multiple collections and not recovering anything that can't be restored and exhibited properly.
Florida's waters hold everything from prehistoric dugout canoes to a turn-of-the-century steamboat in the Suwannee River, said Roger Smith, the state underwater archaeologist for Florida's Division of Historical Resources.
Many of the sites are documented on the Web site museumsinthesea.com.
"It's an opportunity for us to bring these shipwreck parks to a much wider world," Smith said. "You can go on these underwater dives without getting wet."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.