One of the world’s best-known underwater explorers, Barry Clifford, (’69), says his desire to investigate the unknown was first tapped in Gunnison, when he’d head northwest on County Road 730 to the ghost town of Floresta.
“I’d go way out there to explore old mines, walking down those old mine shafts,” recalls Clifford. “It really got my exploration juices going.”
More than four decades later, Clifford, who has unearthed pirate ships off the coasts of Cape Cod and Madagascar, continues to explore the sea bottom. His discovery of the sunken pirate ship, Whydah, off the coast of Cape Cod in 1984, has gained added prominence in recent years. The artifacts dug up from the ocean floor have been on display in the National Geographic Society’s museum exhibit, Real Pirates, which drew large crowds in the spring of 2010 at Denver’s Museum of Nature & Science.
The exhibition teaches about the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean in the 18th century, as well as the sordid history of slave trafficking during that same time.
“We started doing this when underwater archaeology was in its infancy,” says Clifford. “Not long after leaving Western, I realized that the sea floor is covered with shipwrecks and archeology. Back in those days, it was out of sight, out of mind.”
Clifford’s underwater explorations have spawned several books and countless television specials, including one that aired in November on the H2 Channel – formerly History International. The two-hour film documented his discovery of sunken pirate ships from the 17th and 18th centuries off the coast of Madagascar.
His team also explored the African island’s underground labyrinth of tunnels, which may have been the inspiration for a pirate utopian settlement called Libertalia. Clifford is now working with the Malagasy government to preserve and protect these sites and to conserve the artifacts for education and display.
Clifford’s projects abound. He’s involved in salvaging material from a China trader with early porcelain on board that went down off Massachusetts in 1804. Then there’s a warship under the East River in Manhattan, a shipwreck off the coast of Uruguay, and the remains of Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, which he believes lies under the ocean floor off the coast of Haiti.
“I wish I could turn the clock back,” says Clifford, 66, who lives in Provincetown, Mass., with his wife, Margot, who was on the exploration team in Madagascar. “Time just keeps pressing on. I just try to keep fit and take one day at a time.”
Clifford has reconnected with Western and visits the Gunnison area often to see his children – Brandon, 33, a web designer, and Jenny, 41, an artist – who both live in Crested Butte Clifford in 2011 was appointed to the Board of Directors of the Western State Foundation, which raises money to support the college.
Brandon, who dives in some of the Clifford team’s explorations, says his father has an uncanny ability to find things.
“He has this intuitive sense,” says Brandon, vice president of his father’s company, Whydah International. “Amidst all the technology and remote sensing equipment, he’s his own piece of remote-sensing equipment.”
Clifford still dives, though not as much as he once did. He keeps in shape riding his steel Italian road bike around a 20-mile loop on Cape Cod’s northern tip, where he says he “hammers” the hills.
Clifford thought his diving days might be over in 2008 while skiing out-of-bounds with Brandon at Vail, by the sharp pitch they call Prima Cornice. He hit a tree that day, driving his femur through his pelvis. He was back skiing a year later, and still finds time to make some turns.
“My son wouldn’t let me move while we waited for help,” he says. “It was really really cold.”
Clifford began his underwater explorations in Massachusetts not long after graduating from Western, where he’d played football, thrown the javelin, and majored in sociology and history. He started a construction business on Martha’s Vineyard, and dove on weekends, looking for shipwrecks.
He salvaged the Gen. Benedict Arnold off the coast of Plymouth in the mid-1970s, and by the early 1980s, he still dreamed of finding the Whydah, which he’d heard about from his uncle as a child. The pirated merchant ship, which once transported slaves from Africa, had reportedly sunk in a storm in 1717, with its hold loaded to the gunwales with gold and silver.
At Thanksgiving dinner in 1981, at the Martha’s Vineyard home of novelist William Styron, Clifford recalls talking with at Styron friend, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, about his plan to find the pirate ship. Cronkite encouraged him to get started immediately.
“If Walter Cronkite though it was a good idea, I decided it was time to go for it,” says Clifford.
By then, he’d earned a big payday from salvaging a ferry boat that had crashed at a Martha’s Vineyard dock. Then he put together a team to find the Whydah. Using an undersea scanning device, called a magnetometer, which can detect metals buried underground, his team traversed the coastal waters by Marconi Beach, where his investigations of historic archives pointed the wreck may lay.
One day, a particularly strong signal suggested a solid chunk of iron. Subsequent digging found a cannon, and later the ship’s bell. It led to the recovery of more than 200,000 artifacts, including 60 cannons, and more than 10,000 coins. Subsequent excavations have resulted in more than 30 tons of concretions – the hardened mass that formed around the shipwrecked materials, such as cannons, coins and other historic artifacts.
In 2011, his team dug down an additional 10 feet, and discovered stacks of coins, and guns frozen together. In the summer of 2012, Clifford says he will attempt to bring this solid mass to the surface. It will be taken to his laboratory in Brewster, Ma. for analysis.
As a private archaeologist, Clifford owns what he finds. Some of his treasures are on display at the Whydah Museum in Provincetown or in the National Geographic Society exhibit touring museums across the country.
Now he’s in communication with major exhibition halls and museums around the country, to create a permanent exhibit. Among those under consideration is SeaWorld Orlando. He’d like his treasures to teach a new generation about the slaves, pirates, and the dedication of one man determined to solve the mystery of the Whydah, almost 300 years after she sank off Cape Cod.
“I’d like it in a place where it would be most impactful,” he says. “Maybe it could happen at SeaWorld. They could build a ride around it.”
This story originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of the "Westerner" and was written by David McKay Wilson.