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Lost In 'The Quicksands' — New Expedition Seeks Stories From The Wreck Of The Valbanera

A diver goes through part of the wreckage of a steamship that sank off Key West in 1919.
NOAA and UM-RSMAS Quicksands Archaeological Survey
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A diver from the University of Miami explores the Valbanera's bow.

The waters west of Key West have long been known for shipwrecks. One of the ships that sank there was carrying more than 500 people — from Spain to Cuba — in September 1919.

The steamship Valbanera had already dropped off some of its passengers. Then, before it could make it to safe port in Havana, it got caught in a Category 4 hurricane, one of the strongest that has ever directly hit Key West. The ship sank in the area known as the Quicksands. Now, the Valbanera is almost entirely buried in that sand.

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Matthew Lawrence, marine archaeologist with the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, was on a recent expedition by NOAA and the University of Miami to survey the site and shared with WLRN what they found and what they hope to learn.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

LAWRENCE: It's a long steam out from Key West. And after getting out there, you really get a sense that it's open ocean. There's really nothing else around. As shallow as it is, there was nothing there to break the wind and waves that must have been coming up for the hurricane. So you start getting a sense for how traumatic it must have been.

And then we started experiencing the currents on the site. There are very strong currents that sweep through that area as a result of the tidal exchange. All of that water funneling out of Florida Bay with the tides passes right through the channel there, off of Halfmoon Shoal.

We also found visibility to be quite low. It's nowhere near like diving the outer beautiful blue waters on the coral reef. It's pretty green, it's murky. And so it really did lend a somber air to the dives as you began thinking about what these people experienced as their ship was destroyed.

It's really tragic to think that folks were unable to be rescued in that situation. The vessel struck in very shallow water. It's only now in about 25 feet of water. But I believe the strength of the hurricane just prevented anyone from being able to launch lifeboats or get to safety. And all passengers and crew on board perished.

Havana closed its port in the face of a rapidly approaching hurricane. I believe that they didn't want to endanger their pilots or risk having the vessel wreck in the port. And so they said, "I'm sorry, you can't come in here in the face of this hurricane." And so the captain really had no choice but to head for deep water to try to ride out the storm.

An image of the steamship valbanera
The steamship Valbanera was carrying emigrants from Spain to Cuba in 1919. It was allowed to drop off passengers at Santiago de Cuba, but Havana closed its port in the face of the approaching hurricane so the ship headed for open water where it sank.

WLRN: What do you want to learn from shipwrecks? What can we learn from the physical artifact of the shipwreck? 

The people who were on board, it's something that we're very interested in learning — more about their lives. And so we can look at the artifacts, we can look at the ship, the largest artifact, to get a better understanding of what they were seeing when they were, you know, traveling on this steamship. So that's really the stories that we're looking to tell. And, you know, in a situation where no one survived to write down the tale of Valbanera, we're left with investigating the archeological site to help reveal that information.

This story actually inspired Ernest Hemingway to write about it? 

In the 1930s, Ernest Hemingway published "After the Storm," which is a short story describing a diver who goes out to a sunken steamship to try to salvage it and is thwarted in his actions. But it really gives, I think, a sense for how the Valbanera continued to resonate within the Key West community.

And that's something that we hope that through drawing more attention to it, through our expedition, we'll be able to get people to rekindle their memories about the Valbanera, about what their ancestors or their grandparents might have told them about this steamship.

And I'm hoping also that we'll be able to connect with descendants of some of the people who might have sailed across the Atlantic on the Valbanera and were fortunate enough to get off in the Santiago de Cuba before taking that last fateful voyage.

And people still do go out and visit the site. It's a popular, I would say, fishing spot. Intrepid divers do attempt to dive it and experience it that way. And so we want to learn what information we can while also respecting it as a grave site for so many people. '
So we would ask that other people consider that as well. It is illegal to remove or damage archeological sites in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, and it's really not an appropriate thing to do anyway, given the tragic loss of the Valbanera.

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Key West residents after a hurricane in 1919 caused severe damage to the island.
The category 4 hurricane was one of the most severe ever to hit Key West, causing damage to 'virtually every structure on the island,' according to the National Weather Service.