On the Shipwreck Trail
This Indiana Jones takes students diving at sunken vessels.
What they discover is a real treasure.
The year was 2002 and Bill Jones was standing on the deck
of the Spiegel Grove, a 50-year-old retired navy ship slated
for sinking in the Florida Gulf. The project was 10 years and
a million dollars in the making and Key Largo’s chamber of commerce
was betting that this ship-turned-artificial reef would dramatically
enhance local tourism by attracting divers and anglers.
A professor of aquatic ecology at IU’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs,
Bill Jones didn’t care so much about the tourists, but about the diversity and
abundance of marine life this sunken vessel would attract—the fish, coral, and
plants that would eventually make the ship their home.
Jones and his students were volunteering on board, hauling gear and helping with
last-minute clean up. The air crackled with anticipation. Tour boats, reporters,
photographers, and gawkers would be arriving from all over the state to watch the
massive ship go down.
At 10 a.m., four hours ahead of schedule, in what could almost be interpreted as a
final act of defiance, the 510-foot-long ship shuddered and began to sink on her own.
Everyone aboard was quickly evacuated and just 22 minutes later, Jones and his students
watched from the safety of a diving boat as the Spiegel Grove went belly up in the Gulf.
It took another six months and a half-million dollars to bring the ship to its final
resting place, but within a year the Spiegel Grove had become precisely what Jones
hoped it would be, an enormously popular habitat for hundreds of species of fish and other
In Jones’s Coral Reef Ecology course, students spend a week in the Bloomington
classroom and ten days in the Florida Keys. Working in cooperation with and the
support of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, students assess the condition of artificial reefs, such as the site of the shipwrecked San Pedro, an 18th century Spanish merchant vessel that perished when a hurricane hit the Spanish treasure fleet en route from Havana to Spain. All but one of the 21 ships were scattered and sunk over 30 miles of the Florida Keys. The San Pedro is one of nine sunken vessels along the “Shipwreck Trail” between Key West and Key Largo.
There’s not much left of the San Pedro today, just an iron anchor, eight replica
cannons, and a stretch of dense ballast stones, retrieved from European river beds
and stacked, as was the custom of the time, in the lower holds of the ship to
increase stability. With most of the boat scavenged and gone, the real treasure
now, the one that attracts Bill Jones and his students, is the crusty coral reef
that established itself at the shipwreck site.
An Idea is Spawned
How did a SPEA professor—a lake management guy no less—wind up at the bottom of the
sea swimming with students among barracudas and sunken ships?
The idea of teaching in the briny deep surfaced in 1996 in a conversation over
lunch with Charles Beeker, director of the Underwater Science program at I.U.’s
School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation. Beeker mentioned that he was
starting an underwater archaeology project in the Dominican Republic. He had
everything he needed except for a water quality expert.
Nine months later Jones found himself rappelling 51 feet to the surface of
Manantial de La Aleta, one of several ceremonial sinkhole lakes used by the
Taino Indians, the natives who greeted Christopher Columbus when he arrived
at the New World. Among the artifacts discovered during this dive: ceramic pots,
a wooden club, water-gathering gourds, and a ceremonial chair designed for the
Though Jones didn’t realize it at the
this trip was a kind of trial, a way for Beeker to gauge Jones’s
interest in underwater archaeology and make sure that his collaborator
wasn’t merely a competent diver, but a safe one, too. Beeker needed
a careful and attentive guide for his young charges.
“A lot of kids
sign up for scuba in college because they’re adrenaline seekers,”
Jones observes. “They’re not always thinking about safety issues.
I get a rush out of these things, too, but I don’t take unnecessary
For their part, students have called the class “life changing”
and “a dream come true.” And while Jones admits that Coral Reef
Ecology “is only a small part of what I do and an even smaller part
of what SPEA does,” in its own idiosyncratic way the course reflects
SPEA’s broader mission, “giving students skills so they can go out
into the world and do good work.”
Bill Jones is an aquatic ecologist
whose specialty is lake and watershed management. He teaches courses
in limnology, stream ecology, and lake and watershed management.
He and his research group perform lake diagnostic studies, prepare
lake and watershed management plans, and work with the Indiana
Department of Environmental Management in implementing the Indiana
Clean Lakes Program. Jones was a founding member of the North
American Lake Management Society (NALMS) and is currently a governor-appointee
to the Indiana Lakes Management Work Group, a legislative study
group that is recommending changes in Indiana lake policy. He
received a B.S. in zoology (1972) and an M.S. in water resources
management (1977) from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.