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12-year-old snorkeler develops documentary of sunken ship

By Staff | Jul 1, 2010

Cape Coral student Delanie Kirwan, 12, has spent the last year investigating the history behind a shipwreck near Key West.
Kirwan, a student at Oasis Middle School, has vacationed in Key West with her father David and younger brother Donovan for years, where they have snorkeled next to a dilapidated ship’s vessel in an average of 20 feet of water in most places, and observable from miles away at low tide.
Today, the ship is even present on the Google’s Earth application.
“It’s not hidden, everybody knows it’s there,” said David, a member of Reef Relief in the Keys and a retired police officer. “It is undocumented; in other words the federal and state government don’t know what it is.”
Locals who are familiar with the skeletal hull only said that it once belonged to the famous inventor Henry Ford and was used as target practice by the U.S. Navy during the Second World War.
“We’ve been snorkeling at that wreck forever,” said Delanie. “Our friend is a charter captain, and she’d take us there to snorkel and fish.”
The mysteriousness of the wreckage sparked Delanie’s interest, so last year she began interviewing some Key West residents, located a National Geographic article about the ship from 1950, and began contacting a number of experts in the history of old ships.
They found that it once belonged to Ford in the beginning of the last century. The ship, an oil fired steam yacht, measured approximately 200 feet long. Ford reportedly procured it from a man named John Stewart, owner of Stewart Instruments and a designer of speedometers for Ford, in 1917.
According to David Kirwan, it was the largest private yacht in the world at that time.
Ford immediately took the ship, originally named the Salia, on a cruise along the coast of Florida and to Cuba seeking out mineral licenses. He even made a stop at his home in Fort Myers but had to anchor the ship off of Sanibel Island because the Caloosahatchee River wasn’t deep enough.
From 1917 until 1947 the ship exchanged hands a number of times, including a ferry company called Clipper Lines Inc., the U.S. Navy, and finally the John J. Duane Company which specialized in buying and selling old warships. The Navy even used it as a target for squadrons training to drop bombs on German submarines during the Second World War.
The ship’s final name, according to records found by the Kirwans, was the U.S.S. Coral. Delanie’s theory is that the ship was sold “as is” in 1947, was considered unsalvageable and left to rot in the water.
Although, it’s hard to prove the theory because the ship no longer has its name displayed and it was redesigned numerous times, explained David.
“That makes it harder to positively identify it because all of the surviving photographs are from the water line up,” said David Kirwan. “There were some modifications done several times that we know of.”
Over Delanie and Donovan’s Christmas vacation, the family traveled to Key West with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) they ordered off the Internet and assembled with a six ounce camera capable of recording one hour’s worth of action under the water.
The ROV has a 100 foot tether line and is operated by a remote control which activates certain propellers to guide it under the water. David said it is a smaller model of what is being used today in the Gulf oil spill.
Before the ship’s exploration, Delanie had to apply for permits from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary for permission to explore the wreckage and record with the ROV. David said he believes she is the youngest person to receive one of these permits.
“In April we did some filming and the water quality was poor, it was windy and cold,” said David. “She put together a little documentary about this project and this wasn’t part of school.”
She took footage taped by the ROV and edited it into a documentary which she showed to her teachers and classmates. Her inspiration for the documentary came from her hero, Dr. Robert Ballard, the scientist who discovered the Titanic wreckage in 1985. Before deciding to assemble her own ROV, Delanie said Nancy Dunn, her science teacher at Oasis Middle, presented a lesson on how to build one.
Even though her project wasn’t a school assignment, she decided to share it with everyone at Oasis Middle.
“I showed it to my history and science class, and my television production teacher,” she said. “My classmates really liked it, they thought it was really cool.”
After high school she wants to be a marine biologist and she possesses a serious reverence for the ocean. David, Delanie and Donovan attended last weekend’s “Hands Across the Sand” event in Cape Coral to protest future oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.
Delanie’s permit to explore the ship’s wreckage, some 18 miles off the cost of Key West, also requires her to monitor the site during the ensuing oil spill. Her permit expires in March and experts estimate that oil will be carried past the Keys in the loop current and deposit itself near Florida’s east coast.
A copy of her documentary is now at the U.S. Navy Heritage and Historical Command and the Benson Ford Research Center in Michigan. The Kirwans now hope to use their new found knowledge and experience to discover or explore another piece of history.