Barry Clifford on pirates, treasure-hunting and the world's first trans-Atlantic broadcast

Besides maybe monster-truck driver, Barry Clifford has about the most badass job that exists: He's a real-life, bona-fide treasure hunter. His 1983 discovery of the Whydah, a pirate ship wrecked off the coast of Cape Cod, provides the backbone of the Real Pirates exhibit currently at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and tonight, Clifford will talk about the process of finding that ship and the projects he and his crew are currently working on. But we got to him first. In advance of that appearance, we caught up with Clifford to chat about growing up on the Cape and the particulars of what it takes to find a shipwreck.

Westword: Being a treasure hunter is not exactly the most common occupation. How did you get into that line of work? Barry Clifford: As a kid -- well, I wasn't really a kid, but when I was younger -- I was doing a lot of work related to diving; I had a salvage business, I was doing rescue work on ships that were distressed, and I had a major in history and sociology. So that and the folklore of shipwrecks, I just kind of mixed them together and made my own career.

WW: And it was your uncle who told you about the Whydah when you were a kid, right? BC: It was sort of one of those old Cape Cod folk stories, and he used to talk about it all the time. He used to say he knew somebody who went looking for it right after World War II and never found it. But it was something that always resonated in my subconscious, and the more I learned about sunken ships and archeological digs, the more I realized that there were all these sunken ships around the world that nobody had really looked for. They just never had the technology.

The reason many of these ships had never been salvaged years ago is that, for one thing, people couldn't go under water until the 1940s. So once the kind of technologies we were using availed themselves, it became apparent that you could just go look for them.

WW: Where did you begin? The first place you look is obviously in the archives, to establish that there is indeed something there to look for -- there are many wild goose chases you can go on. I had actually been doing this for ten years before I found the Whydah, and I knew how important it was to have this primary source information, so the first thing was I went and established that it was actually there. The second step is remote sensing, where you can kind of scan the bottom of the ocean. So we located anomalies in this stretch of water over a couple of miles and eliminated them one by one, sometimes by having to dig down in 20 to 30 feet of sand to see what was causing the anomaly.

WW: What kind of thing might cause an anomaly? BC: Anything iron might cause a disturbance in the magnetic field -- the Whydah would have had a lot of iron on it, so our major way of doing it was to use a magnetometer. But other things down there have iron on them, too. Other shipwrecks, for example; one thing we actually encountered a lot of was parts of Marconi's tower, which was built to send the first electronic signal across the Atlantic. It was built on a cliff and toppled from that cliff into the ocean about a half a mile from where we found the shipwreck. That was confusing at first. We dug up quite a lot of that tower. It took quite a bit of time to eliminate that.

WW: What have you been doing since then? We've actually brought up about 30,000 pounds worth of artifacts in the last few years. These pirates had about fifty ships, so we've been able to bring up a ton of artifacts, which we've used to piece this history together.

You know, when people come to this exhibit, it's really like they're seeing the only tyrannosaurus rex or the only mummy -- this is the only confirmed pirate treasure ever found. A lot of people don't realize that. A lot of people get it confused with Spanish galleons or other shipwrecks people have dredged up over the years, but this is the only confirmed pirate treasure ever found. So if you want to see pirate treasure, literally the only place the to see it is Denver.

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Jef Otte
Contact: Jef Otte