Exploring history underwater

Want to find buried treasure? For most people, it’s a fantasy, but for a group of divers in Nashville, Tennessee, it’s all in a day’s work.

Diver exploring wreckage on sea bottom (© Ken Stewart)
Divers survey the Hannah M. Bell wreck in the National Marine Sanctuary off Key Largo, Florida. (© Ken Stewart)

Since its founding in 2003, the nonprofit Diving with a Purpose has been teaching volunteer divers the basics of maritime archaeology. The divers take an intensive, one-week course on how to survey undocumented shipwrecks, including submerged slave ships.

People standing looking at wood planks on sand (© Brett Seymour)
An instructor explains the different parts of a mock shipwreck to Diving with a Purpose students. (© Brett Seymour)

The group was co-founded by Kenneth Stewart of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, after he was inspired by a documentary about the search for the slave ship Guerrero, which sank off the Florida coast in 1827. “It has become our main mission to find the ship,” he says.

To date, the 300 divers trained by Stewart’s group have mapped 16 shipwrecks, working with the National Park Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Divers also plant staghorn coral to conserve endangered coral-reef ecosystems.

Divers working on coral structure under water (© Ken Stewart)
Divers tend to a “tree” of staghorn coral in the Coral Restoration Foundation nursery off Key Largo, Florida. (© Ken Stewart)

Recently, the group joined forces with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and other partners on the Slave Wrecks Project, traveling to South Africa to help excavate a Portuguese slave ship that yielded artifacts — a wooden pulley block and an iron ballast — now on loan to the museum.

“We have several missions in northern Mozambique and in St. Croix to document known wrecks,” whose artifacts will eventually also be on display at the museum, Stewart said.

Most of the time, however, the group’s divers leave underwater artifacts in situ — in place — so researchers can study them in context.

Group of divers underwater, holding writing tablets (© Ken Stewart)
Divers, who measure and draw what they find at shipwreck sites, display their “in situ” drawings. (© Ken Stewart)

While many of the group’s divers are African American, anyone is welcome to enroll, Stewart said. He especially enjoys training young people. “I love their energy, and … they give me hope that our planet is in good hands,” he said.