Search for Slave Shipwrecks

Latest update August 23, 2019 Started on October 12, 2018

I am following a group of Black scuba divers, historians and archaeologists who are searching for, documenting and helping to excavate slave trade shipwrecks around the globe.

October 12, 2018
Expedition's summary cannot exceed 240 characters


Did you know that the National Geographic Society is currently offering Explorers a variety of funding opportunities in the fields of conservation, education, research, storytelling, and technology? To learn more and apply for a grant click here.
If you're not interested in applying for a grant, click continue below
Supported by:
In The Field

I am incredibly proud to share the video that National Geographic made of Diving With A Purpose and their search for slave shipwrecks around the world. If you are moved, touched or inspired, please share the link with at least one other person using #whywedive and #thesearchcontinues. Thank you!

And you can check out the story I wrote about this work for NatGeo:

I am incredibly proud to share the video that National Geographic made of Diving With A Purpose and their search for slave shipwrecks around the world. If you are moved, touched or inspired, please share the link with at least one other person using #whywedive and #thesearchcontinues.

Thank you!

This is Justin Dunnavant. He’s bad. In a good way. Archaeologist. Scuba diver. Investigator on the Slave Wrecks Project in St. Croix. Co-Founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists. Newly minted archaeology professor at Vanderbilt University. Diving With a Purpose (DWP) Instructor. Cancer Zodiac sign. Looks good against yellow-orange backdrops. :) ... But most importantly, Justin is one of the new, brilliant and beautiful faces of archaeology today.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1
He is beautiful and brilliant! His contribution when he came to Costa Rica last year was so relevant to our community work that people keep asking when he is coming back. He was quickly able to understand the significance of the culture of community archeology being built here by a bunch of young people who have a dream of becoming what he has become. Great mentor!

Meet Ayana Flewellen - calm, wise, nurturing, an old soul who can turn up in the kitchen on a vegan and gluten-free tip. In my imagination, she’s a 21st-century manifestation of the goddess Yemaya. She’s also a soon-to-be tenured track archaeology professor at the University of California, Riverside, a co-founder of the Society of Black Archaeologists, a co-director of the Estate Little Princess project on St. Croix, and a Diving With a Purpose (DWP) instructor. She will be a DWP board member in October.


The new face of archaeology, y’all.

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1
Indeed an amazing Lady of the Sea, ver energy is contageous. And I al also glad you, yourself are diving your sorrow upon discovering the new threads of poverty that express in our coastal communities in the Caribbean. We cannot do anything about it if we pass the page before fully reading it.
Its the o my way to contribute to write the new book of our history

Lately, I’ve felt stuck and kinda discombobulated. And thus, I’ve been quiet. Silent. Wondering how to keep talking about slave shipwrecks and the slave trade and these amazing actors within it, frankly, in a cohesive, connected and interesting way.

The conversation is just so big—and complicated, and sharing these vignettes with you here doesn’t even begin to hint at what I am seeing and feeling and learning.

Or at least that is the way I framed the discomfort in my mind.

That is, until a few weeks ago.

Earlier this month, I landed in St. Croix (an island in the Caribbean), and as I rode in the shuttle van from the airport to Christiansted, I noted the landscape racing past my window—mini–strip malls, trash-strewn green spaces, buildings impacted by fierce Hurricane Maria. The scenes reminded me of the poorer, black neighborhoods of Atlanta, of Jersey City, of Dakar, of Cape Town, of Johannesburg, of Ouidah, of Togoville ... of so many cities everywhere with sizable black populations.

And as I reconciled my fantasy of a colorful oasis with the reality of the place today, I began to wonder if my stuckedness, this discombobulation I was feeling, runs deeper and is more symbolic of where we are in the conversation of race and slavery and colonization reconciliation globally.

Had I stumbled into, or rather finally become fully conscious of, a nauseous cloud floating in the ether? One that leaves the minds it encounters feeling lethargic and stagnant?

Now, don’t get me wrong. There is color in St. Croix. And beautiful people. And community. So much community. For instance, my friend Malaika, who visited while I was there, and I spent one stellar day with our AirBnB host, probably one of the most connected women on the island. We listened to her long-time friend scat at a quaint cafe; we walked the Mango Melee (a mango festival with an actual mango-eating contest, where I got to participate as a judge); and we sat at a bar on the beach drinking cocktails bought by friendly locals and watching the sunset.

A perfect day.

But St. Croix was one of the Caribbean centers of the slave trade. It has a revered history of community and rebellion, but still, over 50,000 people were enslaved and perhaps as many as 500,000 people traded—on this island. The French, the Spanish, the English, the Dutch, the Danish—all trying to rule a landmass only 28 miles long and seven miles wide. Four hundred plus years of domination shape a people, impact the land, color the very air of a place.

The Danish eventually sold St. Croix to the US in 1917. And the US made St. Croix a territory. But what does it mean to be a US territory? It means that the US has complete control over St. Croix. Crucians get a representative in Congress, but that person has no vote. So have things really changed for Crucians?

The world has not even begun to untangle the impact and legacy of slavery, colonization and ownership for the descendants of the 12.5 million Africans brought to this side of the world, and to places like St. Croix.

But maybe there is a light in the distance.

I spent almost a week in St. Croix with archaeologists, historians and students all working to document and excavate the Estate Little Princess sugar plantation site. I watched them toil in the hot sun. I talked early in the morning and late in the evening with many about healing and identity and faith. And I realized that the race conversation is actually not the same today as it was yesterday. It is shifting. It is deepening. It is lifting. Long-buried truths are surfacing. New, passionate, brilliant minds are stepping into the mix and bringing such nuance and purpose and varied perspective to the table.

And with that, they are beginning to break up that dense, heavy cloud that hangs over us all.

I forgive myself for my silence.

And I take solace in the fact that something new and powerful is emerging.

(pics: Building on the Estate Little Princess site; Dr. Justin Dunnavant [one of the organizers of the summer field school and a lead archaeologist documenting the site]; college students from US Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs] and Crucian high school students learning archaeological techniques.)

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1
We're reading! The vignettes here are pieces of a large puzzle. We get it. There's truth in that type of storytelling.
Yep, same here in Costa Rica... laaaarge puzzle with too many missing pieces that need to be brought in by the descendants of all involved. I thank the youth divers for the fresh look, but also the elder that do not let us forget.

Diving With a Purpose (DWP) hosted actor Samuel L. Jackson at the History of Diving Museum a week or so ago. Sam is one of the producers and the narrator of the 6-part documentary series entitled “Enslaved.” DWP plays a small part in this exciting series.

Sam also joined the team on their dive boat to visit the Grecian Rock, or “The Banana Patch,” the reef that DWP has unofficially adopted. DWP has out-planted more staghorn coral on Grecian Rock than any other reef in their 7-year history of partnering with the Coral Restoration Foundation. The team talked to Sam about the dangers that coral reefs face today and shared their attempts to help save and monitor reefs.

Sign up for the newsletter at to learn more about DWP's work and to hear air dates for "Enslaved" when it is completed.

I just love that the word about this great team is continuing to spread!


1 Sam and Ken Stewart, founder of DWP;

2 (l to r) Aubra Denson, Erik Denson, Alannah Vellacott, Sam and Ken Stewart;

3 Sam and Dr. Jones, co-founder of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers and DWP Board Member;

4 (l to r) Angela Jones, Nan Jones, Sam, Vanessa Haigler and Melody Garrett

image-1 image-1 image-1 image-1

On a long stretch of Florida Keys highway, past unmanned tolls and an oversized Whole Foods, only a hop, skip and jump from the famous Mrs. Mac’s Kitchen, there is a right-side turn-off.

The turn-off leads to a cul-de-sac of blocky, concrete buildings—boring and uninviting … at least all but one. This one, at the very end of the half-circle, teems with life and laughter. Scuba gear dries on the grass and picnic tables out front. The front door slams open and closed as people move outside to chat and slap at the mosquitos buzzing around their skin. Smells of chicken—baked, fried, roasted—along with mac ‘n’ cheese and collard greens waft through cracks in the door.

Inside, co-founder Ken Stewart, with his jaunty NYC-styled strut, ambles to the front of the room and calls for attention. And the 30 or so mainly brown faces, hailing from Peru, Costa Rica, the Bahamas, as well as the US, settle down in anticipation of the evening’s lesson.

All these people are here to participate in Diving With a Purpose’s (DWP) annual, week-long, maritime archaeology training program. They are engineers, civil servants, scientists, archaeologists, IT professionals, students—and more. During the days, they dive and learn underwater archaeology techniques—how to find and map artifacts associated with a shipwreck. During the evenings, they learn about each other and the work that is happening around the world to find slave shipwrecks.

If you visited, boarded the dive boat and descended underwater with the group—not too deep, maybe only 12 feet or so—you would see some divers calmly hovering in place despite strong currents, sketching coral-encrusted artifacts; you’d see others swimming over to the baseline (a central measuring line stretching over 200 feet), taking accurate trilateration measurements; you would also notice that the group practices on a real shipwreck—not a slave ship, mind you—but a real ship that wrecked in the Florida Keys. And you might be impressed to learn that the data gathered here will be put to use by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) to assist in their efforts to map the many wrecks in the area.

The divers—and I can actually include myself in this count—are lit up by the DWP mission. As new and returning underwater archaeology advocates, we are ultimately working to gain the skills necessary to join expeditions and participate in the documentation of real slave ships being found around the world, ships like the Sao Jose, Wanderer, Christianus Quintus, Guerrero, Clotilde or any of the 500+ ships suspected to litter the ocean floor.

But during this specific training season - DWP's 15th annual course - we are especially inspired.

… Inspired by the stories that Maria Suarez tells as we bunch together near the bow of the ship about Tona Ina, a light from a slave ship that travels throughout the centuries motivating people to search for these lost stories in the seas.

… Inspired by the sight of 80+-year-old Doc Albert Jose Jones, one of the founders of the black scuba diving movement, slipping into the ocean in his tank and mask, still moving like a fish in his wonder years.

… Inspired by the first-ever DWP roundtable of women scientists, archaeologists and dive professionals, holding space for each other, leaning on each other, sharing truths over beers on the launch dock.

It is magic, feeling the ocean breeze on your skin and the spray of seawater as the boat races home after a day’s work. It is soul-lifting to look at the tired faces of those around you and know they have shown up despite busy schedules and are devoting their time for no other reason than they believe in this important work.

And it means everything as some of us, along with about 50 or so non-DWPers, meet at 5:30 am at a sunrise ceremony on a historically black beach in Miami to honor the ancestors who passed in the Middle Passage.

We cleanse our bodies with sage. We hold hands. We watch silently as a makeshift boat with an offering of fruit is guided into the water. We quietly release a deep tightness in our hearts.

And suddenly, a dolphin shows up on the horizon and arcs not far the boat.

It leaps again.

Ahhhh ...

The ancestors see us and thank us.

What more can be said.

(Video by Riane Tyler: Dolphin sighting at the sunrise ceremony)

wow. thanks for the encouragement, eisa!