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New Bay Bridge Project Mindful Of Underwater History

Four hundred and fifty eight years after being sunk by a hurricane in Pensacola Bay, archeologists are working to make sure some undiscovered ships in Tristan de Luna’s fleet won’t face a new, twenty first century threat.

Three of de Luna’s vessels, of the six scuttled by the hurricane in 1559, have been discovered and are under investigation, including one discovered in 2016. There is speculation that the other three could be in the general area of the new Bay Bridge construction site.

“We’ve applied to the State of Florida for a special category grant, to continue research on those ships, to make sure they’re not going to impact one of these other ships,” said John Bratten, a nautical archeologist at the University of West Florida.

The grant totals $300,000.

“If we do the survey [and] we find the location of those other ships, then once we know that, then we can protect them,” Bratten says.

Credit Dave Dunwoody, WUWF Public Media
Dr. John Bratten, UWF Archaeology Institute.

The Florida Department of Transportation has surveyed the new Bay Bridge construction site, as required by state law, to determine where to place the project’s construction barges.

FDOT’s Ian Satter says the question has arisen about whether the three missing de Luna ships are even in the vicinity.

“It’s understanding after talking with not only our staff, but with our archeology team that we had brought in, that those particular de Luna shipwrecks are located outside of the project’s ‘area of potential effect,’” said Satter. “So they shouldn’t be impacted by the bridge replacement.”

Before work gets underway on any FDOT project, development and environmental studies are conducted to ensure that no historical areas would be disturbed. If something of historical significance is found at an FDOT construction site, the circumstances of that discovery dictates the action taken.

“We can talk to our archeology team, [and] they can take a look at that and we’ll make those steps at that point,” Satter says. “But right now we’re not anticipating that to happen, based on the extensive work that was done previously.’

If and when UWF’s John Bratten and his team locate the three missing de Luna ships, they can share the information with project managers to protect their resting places. That’s essentially the same protocol as with discoveries at dry land construction sites, such as the one in the East Hill community in 2015.

“And it the [City of Pensacola] is going to do some construction activities, they can contact the Archeology Institute on campus,” said Bratten. “We can say ‘this is a high probability area, or this is what’s there and needs to be monitored.’”

The new Bay Bridge, being built by Skanska USA Civil, will replace the existing, 57-year-old span. One structure will open to traffic in January, 2019, with the other side scheduled to open in the summer of 2020.