Dr. E. Lee Spence is an underwater archaeologist and has been credited with finding 100s of shipwrecks around the world, hereunder the submarine Hunley and the Civil War blockade runner the Georgiana. We had a chat with him about his life as a treasure hunter and archaeologist, his great achievement of locating the Hunley and the controversy that followed. Dr. Spence also gives his advice on how you can follow in his footsteps as an underwater adventurer and treasure hunter.
How did you first get into marine archaeology and what was it that fascinated you about the subject?
My original interest was in history, especially pirates and famous explorers, and it came from my father telling me stories about places we visited in his travels as an American intelligence officer. When I was about eight and we were living in Saigon (ca. 1955), my parents gave me leather bound copies of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island, and those inspired dreams of shipwrecks and treasure, as did Cousteau‘s 1953 book, The Silent World.
When and what was your first experiences with marine archaeology?
I found my first shipwrecks when I was just 12 and my father was stationed in France. I found five wrecks that year. One was an extremely early wreck in the Mediterranean that I found when we vacationed on the northern coast of Spain. I saw no wood, only scattered artifacts. I recovered several small pieces of pottery, which I was later told were either Phoenician or Roman. On another vacation, this one to the French coast along the English Channel, while swimming along some rocks, I found numerous small copper nails, brass spikes and over 50 coins, most were copper but a few were silver (all circa 1800) but there were two badly worn gold coins that dated from the time of the Roman Empire. I suspect the gold coins were from an earlier wreck, but that’s only a guess. We lived in Chateau de Rueilly outside of Orleans, France, and near it I found the virtually intact wrecks of two boats in a canal. In the nearby Loire River, I found thousands of pieces of broken china but kept only those with unique makers marks. Down river from that spot, I found a small wooden wreck, but there was no cargo or other artifacts on it. I made detailed notes, maps and drawings of everything I found. I view those as my earliest attempts at underwater archaeology and they were the start of a long correspondence I had with the late Mendel L. Peterson, who was then Chief of Underwater Exploration for the Smithsonian Institution.
In 1970, you discovered the whereabouts of the submarine Hunley. How did you discover it?
The quick answer is I discovered it by serendipity. I found her when we accidentally snagged a fishing trap on a small portion of the wreck, which had been exposed by the shifting sand. But the real answer is far more complex and there was a lot more than just luck involved.
I became interested in the Hunley because it was the first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship. Before even looking for her, I spent years researching the Hunley and her victim, the U.S. sloop of war Housatonic.
The Housatonic’s location had been mapped after the Civil War, so its location wasn’t a mystery. Like other historians, I incorrectly concluded that the Hunley lay somewhere inshore of the Housatonic, and concentrated all of my search efforts in what should have been her return corridor to Breach Inlet at the eastern end of Sullivan’s Island, which is at the entrance to Charleston Harbor. I (and others before me) had come to that conclusion because documents clearly showed that the Hunley had survived the blast from her torpedo attack on the Housatonic. The Housatonic was sunk in 27′ of water just over 3.5 nautical miles from shore. Since the Hunley failed to make it back, the logical conclusion was that she sank somewhere along her expected return corridor. Furthermore, according to government records, the Navy, immediately after the War, had searched with drags and divers for 500 yards all of the way around the wreck of the Housatonic, so that was one area I and others felt was unnecessary to search. We were wrong.
When I found the Hunley in late October of 1970, I had almost given up any hope of locating her. I had searched the entire “return corridor” without success. A friend, Captain Joe Porcelli, invited me out on his boat for a day of fishing. Near the end of the day, as we were pulling in the last of the blackfish traps that we had put out, one trap snagged. Knowing the bottom should have been a barren sand dessert, with no natural rock or coral to hang up on, I immediately warned the others not pull the trap loose and asked Joe where we were. Joe took out a chart and placed his finger on the approximate location of the Housatonic. I immediately thought that perhaps we had hung up on a portion of that wreck, which had been heavily scrapped after the War. Because the Navy searches had failed to find the sub in this area, I didn’t suspect it might be the Hunley.
I hadn’t been prepared to dive that day, but I wasn’t going to miss the chance to dive on an historic wreck like the Housatonic. Fortunately, Joe had his personal dive gear aboard. But, because I am much taller and wear size 13 shoes, I couldn’t wear Joe’s wetsuit or his fins. Instead, I went down in my underwear and a short sleeved shirt using his double tanks, his Royal Master double hose regulator, and an old style oval face mask, which was fit me poorly and leaked around my moustache.
The water was painfully cold and it was only determination and desire to see what was really down there that kept me going. When I came to the trap I was at first puzzled. It appeared to be caught on a long ledge that dropped 12 to 18 inches to the sand on the side where the trap set. Had we pulled from any other direction the trap would have instantly come free. But something wasn’t right, there shouldn’t have been any ledges in this area so I looked closer. Suddenly, I realized exactly what I was seeing. It was neither the Housatonic nor a ledge, it was the almost entirely buried wreck of the Hunley. The trap had hung up just aft of the forward hatch and the wreck was laying on its starboard side.
When I afterwards mapped the wreck, I found that it was not in its expected “return corridor.” It was a little over 300 yards east (or offshore) of the Housatonic. Why it ended up there and why the Navy failed to find it when they searched in 1865 is still not known.
What went through your mind when you made the discovery?
Absolute elation. When I suddenly realized what I had found, I forgot all about safety and went soaring to the surface literally screaming underwater that I had “found the Hunley.”
What was special about this discovery?
It was a true discovery in that what happened to the Hunley was a real mystery and her location was unknown and not merely lost or forgotten with the passage of time. In the late 1800s the famous showman P.T. Barnum had offered today’s equivalent of a million dollar reward for the wreck, but no one could find it. Government officials have described the wreck as “the most important underwater archaeological discovery of the twentieth century.”
Later NUMA was credited with discovering the Hunley. Can you tell us more about how and why this happened?
Actually, it was not NUMA, but Clive Cussler who started NUMA, who was officially credited with the discovery by the South Carolina Hunley Commission. I personally find that absurd, because Cussler never dove on the Hunley a single time. He was not on the boat when the Hunley was dug up and videotaped for the first time. Nor was Cussler the director nor the sole funder of the 1994/95 Hunley Expedition, which many incorrectly describe as a NUMA expedition.
The team that dug up and video taped the Hunley in 1995 (roughly 25 years after I found it) was funded by Cussler, but it was part of a SCIAA (South Carolina Institute of Archaeology) expedition, which was initiated and officially directed by SCIAA underwater archaeologist Dr. Mark Newell. Dr. Newell has given sworn statements in which he has correctly described what his 1994/95 SCIAA expedition did as the first official verification that my 1970 find was indeed the Hunley. He further swore that he used my maps in planning the expedition.
Although Dr. Newell was not present and had not authorized the divers to dig up the wreck (which he felt was improperly done), he says it was one of two specific targets he had told the team about and had designated as most likely being the wreck of the Hunley. The other target was a magnetic anomaly he had found in about 18 feet of water well inshore of the Housatonic.
When the 1995 “discovery” was announced at a joint SCIAA NUMA press conference, Cussler told the reporters that the sub had been found well inshore of the Housatonic in only 18 feet of water, which, combined with the video, made it look like I had not found the Hunley, as my location, which I had mapped and published, was offshore of the Housatonic and in about 27 to 29 feet of water.
Almost a year later, Cussler finally admitted to a reporter that he had “lied” about the location. But, by that time the damage had been done. Thousands of newspapers published around the world had credited Cussler with the discovery. People say its impossible to un-ring a bell. I agree. To this day, many people incorrectly believe Cussler discovered it.
The truth is, the center of the “X” marking my mapped location for the Hunley (published before the wreck was dug up by the SCIAA expedition) was within the length of the salvage barge later used to raise it from the GPS location for the Hunley as subsequently released by SCIAA.
A well researched, 2007 cover story on the Hunley in U.S. News & World Report correctly credited me as finding the wreck in 1970. Since that time I have used the web to publish numerous government documents (including maps and official correspondence) supporting my 1970 discovery. You can read more about my discovery and this controversy here.
What did you find inside?
I assume you are asking about the Hunley. Even though I applied for it in the name of the Sea Research Society, a non-profit research foundation, I could not get a salvage permit. So, I left her untouched and kept trying to get all of the requisite permissions. She was far too important to be torn open and dug into for souvenirs. As my numerous letters to government officials show, I wanted her raised intact and then properly excavated in a tank of freshwater.
What happened to the wreck?
In 1995, about five months after Cussler made his announcement, and at the official request of Senator Glenn F. McConnell of the South Carolina Hunley Commission, I donated my rights to the wreck to the State, with South Carolina Attorney General Charles M. Condon signing for the State. Senator McConnell had made the request at the Attorney General Condon’s urging only after the Attorney General office reviewed my paperwork and concluded that I was not only the discoverer but the legal owner of the wreck because of an Admiralty claim that I had filed against the Hunley in 1980.
The wreck finally came to the surface on August 8, 2000, not quite 30 years after I discovered it. Much like I had suggested decades earlier, it was placed inside a giant tank of freshwater so it could be properly preserved and studied.
Inside were not only the remains of her crew, which were later buried with full military honors, but also numerous artifacts including a diamond studded gold brooch, a diamond ring, and a twenty dollar gold piece. The gold coin had belonged to the sub’s commander, Lt. George E. Dixon, who had carried it as a good luck piece after it stopped the major force of a bullet when he was wounded in battle. The coin was heavily dented and inscribed “Shiloh, April 6, 1862, My Life preserver, G.E.D.” The wreck has been valued at between twenty to forty million dollars and is now on public display.
You have discovered several wrecks from the U.S. sloop of war Housatonic to the Spanish pirate sloop Diamond. Which find are you most proud of and why?
Over the past 50+ years, I have found literally hundreds of shipwrecks. Other than the Hunley, I think my most important discovery was that of the wreck of the Civil War
blockade runner Georgiana. The Georgiana was described in contemporary records as a privateer or an armed cruiser and as more powerful than the Alabama. She carried amillion dollar cargo of munitions, medicines and merchandise and, according to U.S. Secretary of War Gideon Welles, her loss was a major blow to the Confederacy. To read more about the Georgiana check out this link. Her legal owner was George Alfred Trenholm, who was the historical figure behind the Margaret Mitchell’s fictional sea captain, Rhett Butler, in Gone With The Wind. Trenholm’s identity as the real Rhett Butler was another of my discoveries. For more on the real Rhett Butler see this.
Can you tell us more about the finding of Spanish pirate sloop Diamond?
The Diamond was a Spanish sloop sunk off Cape Romain, South Carolina in 1813, while engaged in an act of piracy. I found the wreck using a linch pin from a giant shackle as a weight to drag behind my boat on a line. I felt the line shudder and tug as the pin slide over the sand then hit and bounced over the ballast pile. After anchoring my boat, I dove down and immediately spotted a still corked Champagne bottle encrusted into the wreckage. The identification of the wreck as the Diamond is tentative, but matches well with what we would expect to find. We later salvaged all sorts of artifacts ranging from pistols, muskets and cannons, to gold chains, thimbles and rings.
Can you tell us more about the finding of one of Henry Morgan’s ships?
The wreck I found that we believe belonged to Captain Henry Morgan’s fleet, lies just outside the spacious harbor between the Colombian islands of Santa Catalina and Providencia (formerly called Saint Catherines and Old Providence), which Morgan had used as the base of his operations against the Spanish before his sack of Panama. I discovered it by following a long trail of scattered ballast until I located the main ballast pile. There I found a large ship’s anchor, cannon, etc. The local divers had failed to note the ballast because, in general shape and size, it looked similar to much of the local rock on the island. The anchor and cannons had been completely covered by marine growth. From that wreck, we later raised arquebuses (early muskets), crossbows and English ceramics dating from the time of Morgan’s control of the island.
You are the President of the Sea Research Society and Vice President of the International Diving Institute. Can you tell us a bit more about these two organizations?
The Sea Research Society (SRS) is a non-profit educational research organization founded
in 1972. Its general purpose is “to promote scientific and educational endeavors in any of the marine sciences or marine histories with the goal of obtaining knowledge for the ultimate benefit to mankind.” It does both archival research and underwater expeditions in search of historic shipwrecks. Besides me, the Society’s founding board members included Luis Marden of National Geographic magazine; Mendel L. Peterson, Chief of Underwater Exploration, Smithsonian Institution; Frederic Dumas, French underwater archaeologist of Jacques-Yves Cousteau fame; Anders Franzen, Swedish underwater archaeologist and discoverer of the Swedish warship Vasa; Ron A. Gibbs, Curator Armed Forces History, National Park Service; Paul Tzimoulis, Publisher, Skin Diver magazine; Ed Bearss, Senior Historian, National Park Service; Sir Robert F. Marx, undersea explorer; Peter Throckmorton, “discoverer of the oldest known shipwreck;” Pablo Bush Romero, President, CEDAM; and others of similar note. Virtually all were published authors and internationally known for their works with shipwrecks. Several have been described as the “father of underwater archaeology.” Unfortunately, a number of the founding members are now deceased. For more on Sea Research Society go here.
The International Diving Institute (IDI) was founded in 1996 and offers advanced dive training, especially in the use of surface supplied air, underwater welding, rigging and hyperbaric chamber operation, leading to a certification required for commercial divers working on oil platforms in the offshore oil industry and for diving operations in the United States that are regulated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. IDI is one of fewer than a dozen professional diving colleges currently operating in North America. It is a member of the Association of Diving Contractors International (ADC) and trains to the Standards published by the Association of Commercial Diving Educators (ACDE), the American National standards Institute (ANSI), and the Sea Research Society (SRS). Its basic commercial diving course is 640 hours done as 40 hours per week for four months. For more on the International Diving Institute go here.
Are there anymore interesting discoveries to be done in the oceans and which ones are you aiming at next?
There are more discoveries to made than could be accomplished in a hundred of my lifetimes. Its said that, worldwide, there have been more than 3,000,000 shipwrecks and that well over half of all the gold mined before 1900 was lost in them.
Do you have any advice for people who would like to follow in your footsteps and would like to find discoveries of their own?
Yes. I would like to tell them that the biggest thing is to believe in yourself, and don’t let people tell you what you can or can not accomplish. Get prepared through hard work, research and study, then go after your dream with the expectation that you will succeed.
How do you get into this field?
The best way is to make friends with people who share your interests, but make sure they are self starters who are willing to work hard and are not just daydreamers looking for an easy way to riches (because this is anything but easy). Seek advice from mentors and experts. Read their books. Do thousands of hours of research and diving, teach yourself everything you think you might need to know, select a findable target, get your equipment and funding together, and then simply go out and start doing it. If you fail, figure out why and start over, perhaps with a new target.
What is your favourite place on earth and why?
There are so many amazing places all over the world that I can’t really say which I have liked best. But one I place that I absolutely loved and want to return to was the Colombian island of Providencia. Not just for its crystal clear waters and beautiful topside vegetation, but for its wonderful people.
What does the future hold?
Lots more discoveries and new books.
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