Under The Sea
Diving deep into HMNS' Real Pirates: Barry Clifford, the man behind the find
It was a bell that made all of Barry Clifford’s hard work pay off.
After years of searching, the experienced undersea explorer discovered the Whydah’s bell, confirming what he thought all along. There was indeed a sunken pirate ship just off the Cape Cod coast and Clifford and his crew finally found it.
Determination was at the heart of Clifford’s mission just as it was when he located numerous other shipwrecks off Cape Cod, as well as the “Hellgate” in New York’s East River, shipwrecks in the Indian Ocean and a number of locations in the Caribbean. His search for the Whydah, though, was a game-changer, since it is the only perfectly preserved pirate shipwreck ever discovered. More than 200,000 artifacts were recovered from the find, but the perhaps the most important part of the discovery was how it shed new light on pirates and pirate culture.
And now those results are on display in the Real Pirates! exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science — through Feb. 6.
Clifford’s earliest underwater adventures began in 1974 when he organized, directed and conducted dive-related work such as underwater construction, oil-spill control, contract sea-rescue and salvage operations, including the MV Islander ferry in 1980. His motivation is science, not profit and while very successful, he’s in it for something else.
In a 2008 Yankee.com article Clifford said, “The adventure is always the treasure. To be able to go out with some people you know and like and go out on some high-minded adventure to solve some mystery — it doesn't get any better than that.”
Clifford certainly had his sleuthing gear on when attempting to track down the Whydah, a slave ship turned pirate vessel, that sank in the midst of a horrific storm in April 1717. Clifford and his crew were at the end of their well-worn rope when a cannon was discovered in July 1984 and although he was hesitant to get his hopes up, it was the Whydah.
In the book Real Pirates, Clifford writes of the long-awaited moment.
“The words elation and unrestrained joy come to mind,” Clifford said in the book. “Certainly it was soaring moment. I felt like I was atop a mountain breathing in pure oxygen.”
As the crew began the delicate task of bringing up cannons, the mast and other pieces of the wreck to the surface, National Public Radio captured how Clifford examined eight cannons fused together in a concretion. He marveled at each piece brought up by a crane, delicately navigating the giant pieces to get a closer look. The artifacts then went into the lab, where technicians cleaned, conserved and studied the treasures from the deep, and when the bell was positively identified as belonging to the Whydah, Clifford could breathe easier.
Finally, secrets that had been buried in up to 30 feet of sand beneath the seabed were going public.
Clifford’s hunt for historical treasure hasn’t ended with the Whydah. He is working on two projects off the New England coast, pursuing fallen ships that were part of America’s first ventures in world trade. Both the Semiramis, a China trader which wrecked near Martha’s Vineyard in 1804 and the Margaret, which sank near Salem, Massachusetts in 1796, occupy Clifford’s time, but the Whydah will always be close to his heart.
“Each shipwreck is a time capsule and each artifact from the Wydah has its own story to tell,” Clifford wrote in Real Pirates.
There’s not much time left to see that story for yourself. The Real Pirates! exhibit leaves the Houston Museum of Natural Science Feb. 6, and with it, the secrets from the deep depart too.