spea magazine

Picture This

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.

sinking 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 marine life.

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 tribe’s chief.

Safety First

Though Jones didn’t realize it at the time, 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 chances.”

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.