From Santa Fe’s desert to deep sea discovery

September 2, 2018

Andrew Lyons lives in the desert, but his heart is in the ocean.

He has been scuba diving since he was a teenager, a passion that has taken him all over the world. Using the skills he developed as an adult — he’s an architect — Lyons recently completed mapping a shipwreck that may be a slave ship from the 1800s.

He said his analysis is part of a nonprofit’s efforts to document and preserve marine heritage sites, specifically those of slave shipwrecks.

“This project is more of a debris field,” Lyons, 53, said of the scattered shards of iron, copper nails and cannons lying 20 feet underwater in Biscayne National Park near Miami.

The submerged wreckage — which was mapped last year but had to be redone following Hurricane Irma — is thought to be the remnants of the Guerrero, a Spanish pirate ship that brought slaves to North America in 1827, Lyons said.

According to legend, the Guerrero and a British naval vessel, the Nimble, engaged in a battle. While most slaves escaped, 41 sank to the ocean’s depths along with the ship.

Eight years ago, Lyons joined Diving With a Purpose, a nonprofit focused on maritime archaeology and conservation. Since connecting with the group, Lyons said he’s been on five expeditions to Florida waters tracking similar slave shipwrecks.

But Lyons’ aquatic passion started long ago.

Growing up in Santa Fe, Lyons remembers vacations spent swimming in the Atlantic off Savannah, Ga., where his 105-year-old grandfather still lives. As a kid, he swam for the club team Dolphins de Santa Fe and competed with his junior high and high school squads. He graduated from Santa Fe High in 1983.

His love for scuba began 40 years ago, when he was certified at the Santa Rosa Blue Hole.

At 13, Lyons took his first scuba trip to the Cayman Islands, where he was enamored with endless coral and shifting shades of blue.

“You’re going along this beautiful underwater beach, all this coral, and then [he slammed the table] it drops 3,000 feet,” Lyons said. “You’re just getting sucked deeper into the blackness.”

Since then, he’s dived in places such as Mexico, Australia, Hawaii, Panama and Thailand.

To Lyons, the experience is like gaining access to another world.

“It’s calm and serene,” he said. “I love the 3D aspect — the way you move, the flotation. … Watching the fish and all these creatures you don’t see normally.”

At the end of each trip, however, Lyons returns home to Santa Fe, where he owns Andrew Lyons Design & Drafting.

Diving With a Purpose organizers say Lyons is one of two people in the organization who knows how to map its findings.

“For a while there we didn’t have any site maps, and it created a feeling of ‘What do we do this for?’ ” said Ken Stewart, co-founder and program director of Diving With a Purpose. “Now with site maps, we have a sense of accomplishment. Andy helps with that. He’s been a great addition to the team.”

The maps, Stewart explained, are used by the National Park Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for “documentation of the site.” Today, the nonprofit has 16 site maps, with this being the first Lyons has created single-handedly.

Though Lyons has only traveled to Florida with Diving With a Purpose, he said the group is looking to analyze other potential wrecks. Because an estimated 12 million slaves were brought to the United States, and routes went from Africa to the Americas to Europe and back, Lyons says “wrecks are all over the place.”

Diving With a Purpose organizers won’t release the GPS coordinates of its most recent dive site because they don’t want the general public to know the location, Stewart said, because of the threat of looting.

“We never divulge the location of the artifacts,” he said, due to fears that “people would take them — no doubt about it.”

Every item discovered, Stewart added, is essential to identifying a ship. He said he believes it’ll likely be another couple of years before the group can determine whether the ship is in fact the Guerrero. It largely depends on whether the divers locate bones of the 41 people killed or find ivory that’s also believed to have been on board.

The Biscayne project was Lyons’ first time leading the nonprofit’s youth program, Youth Diving With a Purpose, as an instructor. For a week, he led a group of 14 young people, ranging in age from 14 to 20, all of whom would hand-draw artifacts, mark them with pin flags and measure the distance from the pin flag to a straight line drawn before the analysis began.

Lyons completed mapping the data, which he said took about 48 hours.

It doesn’t feel like work.

“It’s two things I really like — archaeology and diving,” he said. “The mapping comes naturally given my background in architecture.”

Lyons’ next step, he said, is to get his science diver certification, which would allow him to ride in National Park Service and NOAA boats, thus gaining access to different missions. He also hopes to travel to Egypt sometime next year and scuba in Africa with Diving With a Purpose. Every dive, he said, fuels his curiosity.

“Swimming into the abyss — it kind of takes your breath away,” he said.

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