Water: The elemental link to Florida’s identity
By Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee
Surrounded by more than 1,300 miles of coastline containing a myriad of freshwater lakes and springs, and with more than 11,000 miles of rivers, water is perhaps Florida’s most defining element. We are fortunate to live in a state where almost anywhere you go, you can find a body of water within close proximity providing inspiration, adventure and a way of life for millions of Florida’s residents and visitors. At the Florida Department of State, we have an assortment of resources and opportunities to guide your exploration of the history, culture, and environment that lies in and around our state’s most abundant natural wonder.
Whether it’s labyrinth-like caves or coral reefs, Florida has long been a paradise for snorkelers and divers drawn to our underwater worlds. Some of Florida’s diving destinations are the shipwreck trails the Department’s Bureau of Underwater Archaeology has curated, guiding divers to a host of sites that are part of the 1733 Spanish Galleon Trail in the Florida Keys; the Museums in the Sea, Florida’s Underwater Archaeological Preserves; or the Florida Panhandle Shipwreck Trail. Some of the sites are artificial reefs — including the USS Oriskany, the largest artificial reef in the world — attracting a vast array of sea life that divers may encounter on their expeditions. All of the sites offer divers an unforgettable adventure into Florida’s rich maritime history and heritage.
Concealing more than just sunken ocean vessels, Florida’s waters have long held clues to our ancient past. In 2016, the Department received reports from a diver who had discovered what has since been determined by its underwater archaeologists to be the remnants of a more than 7,200-year-old burial pond that once sat nine feet above sea level. The Manasota Key Offshore site is a groundbreaking discovery for understanding the effects sea-level change has had on the prehistoric landscape and for what it will divulge about Florida’s Indigenous peoples and the environment they inhabited.
While our archaeologists work diligently to understand more about the relationship between Florida’s first people and water, the Florida Folklife Program has been engaged in cataloging Florida’s cultural landscape through the lens of water. Their 2020 fieldwork reveals just how influential water has been in shaping the rich tapestry of living traditions that give Florida its unique identity.
The survey captures a diversity of traditions tied to maritime occupations like Apalachicola Bay oystering and Tarpon Springs sponging. Water-based attractions like the mermaid shows at Weeki Wachee Springs and the glass bottom boat tours at Silver Springs have shaped our identity as a destination for wonder and recreation. The resourcefulness of our pioneering days is represented by our traditional foodways of swamp cabbage, gator and smoked mullet. Florida’s geographical situation, which makes it prone to hurricanes and tropical storms, has contributed to its oral traditions of folk tales, myths and legends while also influencing vernacular architecture adapted for strong winds and flooding.
These traditions revolving around water have become the trademarks by which people around the globe recognize Florida. As Secretary of State and Chief Cultural Officer I remain committed to preserving, protecting and promoting accessibility to Florida’s priceless and distinct cultural, historic and natural wonders. At the Florida Department of State, we will continue sharing these resources and inviting exploration because the more people experience what Florida has to offer, the more it is cherished. I look forward to serving you, wherever your adventures take you!
Secretary of State Laurel M. Lee was appointed by Governor Ron DeSantis as Florida’s 36th Secretary of State. She was previously the Circuit Court Judge in Florida’s Thirteenth Judicial Circuit in Hillsborough County. Secretary Lee received her bachelor’s degree and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Florida, where she was a member of Florida Blue Key. She was inducted into the University of Florida Hall of Fame in 1999.
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