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Nine sites can bring divers closer to history

Floridians are blessed with an extensive system of underwater preserves that stretches from the Panhandle to the Florida Keys.

The nine archaeological sites are easily accessible to scuba divers and snorkelers. Every site has an underwater interpretive plaque. Free brochures are usually available at dive shops in the service area.

Visitors should note that artifacts associated with each site are protected by law.

URCA DE LIMA: The state's first underwater archaeological preserve opened in 1987. The ship was part of a treasure fleet that sank off the coast of Fort Pierce during a hurricane in 1715.

SAN PEDRO: This Dutch-built galleon departed Havana in the summer of 1733 loaded with gold, silver and jewels, bound for Spain. The vessel sank during a hurricane, and the ballast stones and bricks from the ship's galley can now be viewed in 18 feet of water off Indian Key, near Islamorada.

CITY OF HAWKINSVILLE: This steamboat measured 141 feet long and worked lumber on the Suwannee River. In service until 1922, the City of Hawkinsville rests in shallow water near Old Town.

USS MASSACHUSETTS: One of the original battleships of America's first steel Navy, the Massachusetts served during the Spanish-American War. In 1921, the 350-foot ship was towed to Pensacola and used for target practice.

SS COPENHAGEN: This 325-foot, single-screw steamer left Philadelphia on its final voyage in the spring of 1900. A week later, it hit a reef off Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. The wreck now lies in 16 to 31 feet of water south of the Hillsboro Inlet.

SS TARPON: The wreck of this twin-screwed steamer was dedicated in the spring of 1887. The overloaded ship began taking water on an August night in 1937 near St. Andrews Bay. The Tarpon went down in 95 feet of water, taking 18 members of the 31-member crew.

HALF MOON: This South Florida wreck is believed to be that of a 386-ton steel sail-powered yacht that once raced off Cowes, England. The ship was being used as a floating saloon when it sank off Key Biscayne in the 1930s.

LOFTHUS: To help fend off pirates in the South Pacific, the owners of this merchant vessel painted on false gunports. Launched in 1868, this 222-foot vessel wrecked during the winter of 1898 off Florida's east coast, north of the Boynton Inlet.

VANMAR: The 170-foot vessel that once carried Rear Admiral Richard Byrd to the Antarctica sank under mysterious circumstances during March 1942, just months after the United States entered World War II. The ship now lies in 25 feet of water about 4 miles off Mexico Beach.

For more information on the state's archaeological preserves, go to archaeology/underwater/preserves.