Snorkeling into History

Molasses Reef harbors some secrets

Keys Sunday contributorJuly 8, 2011 

The local charter trade refers to Molasses Reef as the aquarium. The mix of sponges, corals, and limestone substrate create a massive, brilliantly designed underwater complex. A spur-and-groove reef formation, it is festooned with intricately designed hard corals, sponges shaped like barrels and vases, and supple soft corals — brilliant purple sea fans and delicate sea whips. The nooks and crannies attract tropical fish like wildflowers draw honeybees.

Molasses Reef grows along the southernmost fringes of John D. Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park with depths ranging from 10 to 50 feet. The best snorkeling is closer to the iron skeleton marking the reef. Sufficed to say, with 30 mooring buoys, Molasses is a popular site — especially on weekends. In fact, between snorkelers and scuba divers, this might be the most highly visited site in the Sunshine State.

Getting there: N 25 01.00/W 80 22.53

How the reef got its name is a vague story and allegedly stems from the wreck of a molasses transport. Nothing seems to be written down in terms of corroborating evidence, no names or dates. Some accounts suggest the wreck was a barge, while others say the name is the result of more than one wreck. The lone commonality is molasses, though sadly, in each and every case it is unclear as to whether or not the sweet, dark, viscous liquid ever seeped into the water. Frankly, Molasses Reef, a major reef, deserves a better story.

In terms of the Florida Reef, Molasses Reef came late to the name game. Interestingly, neighboring reefs Pickles Reef and French Reef, smaller reefs, were established relatively early on by comparison. For instance, the Amulet struck Pickles Reef in 1831, and the Yucatan hit French Reef in 1847. The words Molasses Reef did not enter the lexicon until well after the Civil War. In any case, long before the identifier stuck, the calcified branches of elkhorn corals were reaching for the Atlantic surface like stony daggers and over the years, they snagged their share of unsuspecting ships.

It did not help that reef identification in Florida's burgeoning years was not an exact science and often reefs were confused and names misspelled. Nor did it help that prior to 1825, Key Largo reefs were unilaterally referred to as Carysfort Reef, named for the 1770 wreck of the British warship, H.M.S. Carrysford. (You can read more about Carysfort in the Keys Guide section of KeysNet.com.) It is likely the shipwreck that went on to identify Molasses Reef was attributed either to Pickles or French.

Documents indicate that ships wrecked in the vicinity with molasses in their holds. The Pauline hit Pickles Reef on April 15, 1854, with a load of molasses and sugar. While the crew was rescued, the schooner and the molasses were a total loss. The Ben Cushing left Havana, bound for Portland, with a load of molasses and cigars when she struck French Reef on Feb. 22, 1862. The ship was lost, as was much of her cargo.

Both of those ships fit the timeline. It is odd that for such a big reef, even as late as 1868, Molasses Reef was not being identified on conventional maps of the Florida Reef because it is, after all, one of the biggest reef structures in the entire barrier reef system. One of the first wrecks attributed to Molasses Reef did not hit the books until 1876 when the Deadueus met her fate. It is from this point that shipwrecks begin to pile up on the reef: Energus (1877), Northhampton (1883), Oxford (1894).

While the name finally made the books, the history of Molasses Reef was not suddenly illuminated. Molasses still has a little mystery hidden within her nooks and crannies.

According to Steven D. Singer's invaluable tome, " Shipwrecks of Florida, " an Austrian ship, Slabdova, left New Orleans in March of 1887 with a load of cotton literally stuffed into her holds. She reportedly struck French Reef on March 16. As a perfect example of the confusion often associated with the identification of these reefs, reports also show that on that very same day, March 16, 1887, another Austrian ship, Slobodna, delivering 4,500 bales of cotton from the docks of New Orleans to Europe's textile mills, reportedly wrecked on Molasses Reef.

The Slobodna had been constructed three years earlier on the island of Losinj, off the coast of what is today Croatia. The 1,100-ton, three-masted merchant vessel was iron-framed with a wooden hull and struck Molasses Reef in 23 feet of water. The corals chiseled away at the hull until water began to seep through the cracks and into the holds. The cotton began to absorb the warm Atlantic water.

The bales had been jammed in and space was already tight when the cotton began to swell and continue to expand until it was pushing at the sides of the ship. The distressed planks began to creak, moan, and split and, in this particular case, the cotton itself was at least partially responsible for the loss of the ship.

Pieces of her still decorate the reef. While little of the hull remains, her three masts lay across the sandy floor. The iron windlass, too, was left behind. The steam-driven windlass, or winch, was used to move the heavy chain attached to the ship's massive bow anchor. These days that spot on the reef is referred to as the Winch Hole.

In 1921, two identical unmanned lights were erected in the Upper Keys. One of the 45-foot iron structures was pounded into Pacific Reef, up in Biscayne National Park; the other was pounded into Molasses. While both octagonal iron markers still stand like skeletal scarecrows out on their respective reefs, like a headless horseman, neither structure shoulders its light tower. With navigational advances, the lights from Carysfort and Alligator were deemed sufficiently luminescent to cover the span of reef line and the light towers removed.

Unfortunately, none of the markers were enough to deter the M/V Wellwood. On Aug. 4, 1984, the 400-foot vessel ran up on Molasses, grinding away at nearly 20,000 square feet of reef until it was as smooth as the Overseas Highway. Nearly a quarter-million square feet of brain coral, elkhorns and seafans, sponges and star coral was destroyed or injured. The resulting fine for habitat destruction was assessed at $6.275 million and the bill paid over a 15-year period.

-- Brad Bertelli is an author and snorkeling enthusiast living in Tavernier. His book, " Snorkeling Florida: 50 Excellent Sites, " was published by the University Press of Florida in 2008.

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