Friends vow to re-erect Mike's flag on Vero Beach shipwreck after Hurricane Dorian

Every year friends paddle out to mount American flag on SS Breconshire wreck

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

Photos from before 2009 of a group, including Mike Baluts, before a paddle out to erect an American flag on the S.S. Breconshire. (Images courtesy: Angelique Kulynych)

Hurricane Dorian spared Florida from serious damages, however, the Category 2 storm did knock down an American flag erected every year on an old shipwreck in Vero Beach by a group of friends in memory of a local legend who made it his mission to protect the coral reefs.

The story of the flag dates back to 1894 when the S.S. Breconshire, a 300-foot-long ship from England, ran aground on the shoreline of what's now known as Orchid Island,  according to the Indian River County Tourism Development Bureau. The wreck is one of many along Florida's Treasure Coast that have since become home to artificial and coral reefs and the marine life that depends on them.

The island on the Atlantic is separated from the mainland by the Indian River Lagoon and is a popular dive and paddle out spot, including for late Michael Blatus.

According to longtime friend Angelique Kulynych, in the early 90s Blatus paddled out to help a man nicknamed "SailBoat Dick" trying to mount an American flag on the boiler of the wrecked ship.

Mike Blatus and his parrot (Image courtesy: Angelique Kulynych)

Kulynych said she's not sure what the man's real name was or what happened to him, but the rest is history.

Blatus continued to swim out about 400 yards offshore year after year-- first with some PVC pipe and zip ties -- hoisting the American flag to honor American independence and bring awareness of the importance of protecting the reefs, said Kulynych, who was among the friends who paddled out with Blatus on his mission over the years.

"It was just kind of like a vision that he had that would bring people together," she said. "He would put it up and he just thought it was the coolest thing and that people would be confused" by seeing a floating American flag in the middle of the water.

Later, the flag pole received upgrades, first with stronger materials and eventually lights.

Every year friends of Mike Blatus paddle out and erect an American flag on the S.S. Breconshire shipwreck. Hurricane Dorian took the flag away on Sept. 3, 2019 but friends say it will go back up.

Kulynych said before Blatus died in 2009 he was a local fixture in Vero Beach. He could be found riding his bike with his parrot on the handlebars or meeting up on the beach for a midnight dive into the coral reefs he loved so much. His apartment walls were plastered with images of aerial views of the reefs.

"They would go swim around the reefs at midnight," Kulynych said. "He was just fearless he was just crazy cool."

Blatus was concerned with protecting the coral reefs, which face new environmental and unknown threats.

Every year when the beaches are dredged it prevents sunlight from reaching the reefs, said Kulynych, the habitats need to survive.

According to a 2018 report form Florida Department of Environmental Protection, nearly half of Florida's 45 reef-building coral species have reportedly been affected by a mysterious disease outbreak.

After Blatus died, Kulynych said, his friend Keith Hennessey began organizing friends to continue erecting the flag around July 4th every year.

A memorial for Vero Beach environmentalist Mike Blatus.

"I know whenever I am in the ocean, he is watching over me. A lot of people really miss him, and I think it's really cool they've continued his legacy," Kulynych said. "It's kind of like "Mike your flags up.'"

On Tuesday night in Vero Beach, as the outer bands of Hurricane Dorian lapped the coastline, "Mike's flag" was no longer standing. However, Kulynych said her friend's legacy will continue once the flag is re-erected.

"The people that did know him have a lot of pride that it goes up," she said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect that the flag was knocked over not swept away.

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