The case of the suspicious submerged squares
One of the many suspicious submerged
squares off Bradenton Beach.
In the Gulf of Mexico off Bradenton Beach, small, white squares lie silently on the sea floor, some in straight lines running north to south, refusing to give up their secret.
Many a summer snorkel session has been plagued by gnawing questions:
Are the suspicious submerged squares the underpinnings of a road that has since been claimed by the Gulf of Mexico?
Could they be the pilings of homes that once boasted waterfront views and were brought low by a hurricane?
Might they be rubble from the erosion control groins that once lined the beach like jail cell bars?
Or are they the remains of an alien landing strip visible from space?
Ever committed to in-depth news reporting, especially when the depths are in the Gulf of Mexico and it's summer, The Sun wanted to know.
Cortez fishermen and science fiction filmmaker Mark Ibasfalean naturally wondered whether the orientation of the squares running alongside the shoreline indicated an underwater alien landing strip.
But aerial photos of the Island's coastline at the Manatee County Historical Library exhibit no evidence of the angular patterns typically associated with alien landing strips.
One theory quickly shot down, and another film idea squashed before its time.
Several residents proposed that erosion control groins that once ran perpendicular to the coastline along Bradenton Beach could have been washed into the Gulf by storms.
A common type of groin structure ran offshore to onshore, but they would have been made of wood pilings, not concrete, said Manatee County beach renourishment engineer Rick Spadoni, with Coastal Planning and Engineering.
In addition, longtime Anna Maria Island residents who cut their feet climbing over the groins recall that they were dark, irregularly shaped rocks, not white squares, a recollection confirmed by the historical aerial photos.
West Coast Surf Shop owner Jim Brady remembered that there were once houses that stood on pilings west of the row of homes that currently front the Gulf.
Given the naturally shifting sands of barrier islands – Biblically discouraged from development by the "foolish man who built his house on sand" parable ("And the rains fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall thereof.") – the suspicious squares could be pilings of houses that fulfilled the prophesy.
A 100-year-old plat map at the Manatee County Clerk of Court's office shows home sites west of Gulf Drive that are now underwater, according to Cindy Russell of the Manatee County Historical Library.
In one place in Bradenton Beach, there was a single set of 20 lots, or one block, west of Gulf Drive. In other places, there were two, three and four blocks west of Gulf Drive, which was not called Gulf Drive because it wasn't on the Gulf then.
But any houses built on those lots probably would have been built of wood, with wooden pilings that have long since rotted away, said Pam Gibson, of the Manatee County Central Library.
Other avenues – literally – remained to be explored.
When war hero Jim Kissick came back to Bradenton Beach from World War II, three streets west of Gulf Drive at the south end of town had been claimed by a hurricane and were underwater, he said, adding that at the time, Gulf Drive was known at the south end of town as Fourth Avenue.
Digging further into the dust-free online annals of the coastline's history towards the north end of town, the plat map shows avenues that no longer exist west of Avenue D, now Gulf Drive. Where Avenue E, Avenue F and Avenue G are shown, there now is only water.
This means that on the sandy, county beaches where people now pitch tents and horseshoes, a well-to-do Bradenton Beach resident could have driven a brand, spanking new 1911 Ford Model T on a road that is now underwater.
But chances are, given the roadbuilding technology at the time, any roads were made of shell, and did not have concrete underpinnings resembling the squares, Gibson said.
Another dead end.
Before the Island's first beach renourishment in 1992, "People just threw out pilings and rubble and anything into the Gulf to save their property because the Island was eroding at a rapid rate," Spadoni offered, guessing that the squares could have simply been trash.
Not content with such a mundane answer, The Sun called in the Cortez cavalry.
Underwater archaeologist Jeff Moates of the Public Archaeology Network and a board member of the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH), and Ryan Murphy, site manager for the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez, are always up for an adventure in area waters.
The suspicious submerged squares were found, observed, photographed and measured as the team floated theory after theory one morning last week.
Then, Indiana Jones-like, Moates did an obvious thing for an archeologist. He pulled on one of the squares.
It came loose.
What had looked like the exposed surface of a deeply-embedded concrete piling actually was only about two inches thick.
Then he did the unthinkable. He broke off a corner and brought it to the surface.
What had looked like solid white concrete was actually white on top and black underneath.
Roadbed material? Petrified wood? Guesses flew like a flock of terns chased by a three-year-old wielding a sand shovel.
The team continued to search, finding more squares on more patches of rock, lifting them up and, in one case, finding a bit of worn rope underneath.
The rock is probably limestone outcroppings, Moates called out.
Then a light bulb – or, possibly, photographer Ed Ice's flash – suddenly became visible above Moates' head.
In any case, he had an answer.
What lives in rocks?
The suspicious submerged squares were all that was left of wooden stone crab traps that had rotted away. Concrete is used to weigh down the traps.
Is that a collective "Well, duh" coming from the direction of Cortez?
The rocks off Bradenton Beach north of the "S" curve are like dead man's curve to a crabber, said Ibasfalean, who is a crabber when he isn't making horror films.
"It's a suicide run. The traps get caught in the rocks in a storm and you lose it all, but everybody does it," he said.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, stone crab traps can't be larger than two feet by two feet by two feet. Most traps are 16 to 18 inches square, Ibasfalean said.
Measurements of two of the squares were 18 inches square.
"The wood would disintegrate, and there would be signs of where the wood was in the corners," Ibasfalean said.
Photos of the squares show indentations that could be the edges of a trap. And X patterns on the concrete would show where wood was used to frame the bottom of the trap.
Double and triple check.
But how do you explain the straight, almost alien-like north-to-south lines the squares make underwater?
Fishermen often drop the traps in straight lines following the rocks, which are mostly parallel to the shoreline.
We are calling this case solved.
So if anybody wants to recycle some free concrete squares, come on out to Bradenton Beach and pick 'em up.
And let us know if you find anything mysterious out there. We'll get to the bottom of it.