“I’d go way out there to explore old mines, walking down those old mine shafts,” recalls Clifford, who graduated from Western in 1969. “It really got my exploration juices going.”
In the four decades since, Clifford, has salvaged pirate ships off the coasts of Cape Cod and Madagascar and continues to explore the seafloor. His discovery of the Whydah off Cape Cod in 1984 continues to generate interest. Artifacts from that pirate ship have are displayed in the National Geographic Society’s exhibit, Real Pirates, which drew large crowds in 2010 at Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science. The exhibit, which continues to travel the country, details the golden age of pirates in the Caribbean, as well as the slave trade, in the 18th Century.
“We started doing this when underwater archaeology was in its infancy,” Clifford says. “Not long after leaving Western, I realized the sea floor is covered with shipwrecks and archaeology. Back in those days, it was out of sight, out of mind.”
Clifford’s underwater explorations have spawned several books and countless television specials. A two-hour documentary aired on the H2 Channel a couple years back, detailing his discovery of sunken pirate ships from the 17th and 18th centuries off the coast of Madagascar.
His team also explored the East African island’s underground labyrinth of tunnels, which may have inspired a pirate utopian settlement called Libertalia. Clifford is working with the Malagasy government to preserve and protect these sites, and to conserve the artifacts for education and display.
Clifford is also helping to salvage early porcelain and more from a China trader 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 Christopher Columbus’ flagship, the Santa Maria, which he believes is buried in the ocean floor off 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 who both live in Crested Butte. In 2011, he joined the board of directors for the Western State Foundation, which raises money to support the university.
His son 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. “Amid all the technology and remote-sensing equipment, he’s his own piece of remote-sensing equipment.”
The elder Clifford still dives, though not as much as he once did. He stays fit riding his steel Italian road bike on a 20-mile loop along 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, 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 u
nderwater 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, Mass., in the mid-1970s. And by the early 1980s, he still dreamed of finding the Whydah, which he knew from tales told to him as a child by his uncle. The pirated merchant ship, which once transported slaves from Africa, had reportedly sunk in a 1717 storm. Legends claimed it was loaded to the gunwales with gold and silver.
During Thanksgiving dinner in 1981, at the Martha’s Vineyard home of novelist William Styron, Clifford recalls talking with Styron’s friend, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, about his plan to find the pirate ship. Cronkite encouraged him to get started immediately.
“If Walter Cronkite thought it was a good idea, I decided it was time to go for it,” Clifford says.
With money on hand from salvaging a ferry that had crashed at a Martha’s Vineyard dock, he assembled a team to find the Whydah. Methodically, they scanned, with an underwater magnetometer, the coastal waters by Marconi Beach, archives suggested the wreck might lay.
One day, a particularly strong signal suggested a solid chunk of iron. Subsequent digging found a cannon, and later the ship’s bell. Eventually, they recovered more than 200,000 artifacts, including 60 cannons, and some 10,000 coins. In 2011, his team dug down an additional 10 feet and discovered stacks of coins, and guns frozen together.
As a private archaeologist, Clifford owns what he finds. Some of his treasures are on display at the Whydah Museum in Provincetown, Mass., and were included in the National Geographic Society exhibit.
He hopes his treasures will teach a new generation about the slaves, pirates and dedication of one man determined to solve the mystery of the Whydah, almost 300 years after she sank off Cape Cod. And he’s talking
Now he’s talking with major exhibit halls and museums around the country to find a home for a permanent exhibit. Among those under consideration is SeaWorld Orlando.
“I’d like it in a place where it would be most impactful,” Clifford says. “Maybe it could happen at SeaWorld. They could build a ride around it.”