Barry Clifford grew up along the coast of Massachusetts and spent many of his early years listening to stories told by his uncle, Bill Carr. One of Carr's favorite stories to tell was about the night when pirate Black Sam Bellamy and his ship, the Whydah Gally, were lost in a storm just off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts (see Chapter 11). The tales of this real pirate ship — lost off the shore of his home and loaded with treasure that had gone down with the vessel — filled young Clifford with excitement. He never forgot his uncle's tales. In fact, he grew up to become a diver and wreckage salvor who often put himself in great danger. Eventually he decided to become a treasure hunter, and set his sights on bringing up the Whydah, following Carr's advice to him when Clifford confidently proclaimed he would find her: “You'll never know unless you try, Boy.”
Truth or Dare
Locating the wreckage of the Whydah wouldn't be an easy task. For more than 250 years the ship remained hidden under shifting sands off the shores of Cape Cod. Because the ocean floor is composed almost entirely of sand, and because of the strong surf, the topography off the Cape changes constantly. Even sandbars shift in strong currents. Clifford knew that the sunken ship would've quickly been covered with sand, and while it was certain that locals collected much of the wreckage that floated to the shore, it was highly unlikely that anyone could have located the ship itself, or the treasure of gold, silver, and gems that Bellamy reportedly had onboard. During the early years, diving technology didn't exist for uncovering the vessel.
The son of a British naval lieutenant, Captain Cyprion Southack lived in the Boston area in the early 1700s, where he was a cartographer and commander of ships that patrolled the coast of New England defending merchant ships against pirates and privateers. He was the ideal person to search for the wreckage, and was able to locate much of what was found on shore, but was unable to locate and salvage the ship.
In 1974, Clifford used a combination of actual accounts of the shipwreck taken from the surviving pirates' trials. He also studied written accounts and maps drawn by Captain Cyprion Southack, who was appointed by Massachusetts Bay governor Samuel Shute to investigate the wreck of the Whydah and locate its remains and cargo. In addition, Clifford absorbed newspaper articles and stories passed on by area residents. Once he had a good idea of the general area where the ship likely sunk, Clifford had to convince the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archeological Resources to issue a permit for his crew to dive the specific area and search for a shipwreck. This was easier said than done, as Clifford had endured a run-in with the Board in the past and they weren't too pleased with him. In fact, they required him to provide artifacts showing that the area was the likely site of a wreck, but at the same time he had no permit to dive and so couldn't bring any artifacts to the surface. Clifford solved the problem by having someone search the shoreline just off his desired dive area with a metal detector. Old coins dating from the time of the 1717 shipwreck were located onshore and ultimately convinced the Board to allow Clifford's team to dive the suspected wreck site.
Saving the Whydah
Clifford began diving for the Whydah in the summer of 1982. Two years later, with about four dollars left in his pocket, a single tank of fuel, and a camera crew from a news station riding along hoping for footage of a whale, Clifford's electronic sensors made out something beneath the ship. Diving down, the crew discovered an old cannon, covered in concretions, which are masses of rock and minerals that form around items underwater, protecting them from the elements. Shortly thereafter, Clifford brought up another concretion found near the cannon and chipped away the stone to reveal a piece of eight dated 1684. The crew believed they'd discovered the Whydah, though they wouldn't officially prove that until October 1985, when they would retrieve the ship's bell and remove the concretions to discover it was imprinted with the words: The Whydah Gally 1716.
Over twenty years later, the Whydah salvage operation continues. More than 200,000 artifacts have been discovered to date, including not just coins and gold and silver bars, but items used by real pirates — tools, cannons, firearms, swords and blades, navigational equipment, jewelry, barrels, kitchenware, tableware, clothing, pipes, candle holders, chains, and ship components. Some of the more interesting items found were an ornate gun including the intact satin ribbons used to hold it around a pirate's neck, a leather ammunition pouch tied with a silk ribbon and containing twenty-eight lead bullets, and a shoe, sock, and human leg bone that were found together in a concretion. The shoe size and the length of the bone show that they belonged to a man who was likely no more than five feet four inches tall. In order to share the Whydah's pirate treasure and artifacts with the public, Clifford and his organization established the Expedition Whydah Sea Lab and Learning Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where a selection of artifacts are on permanent display. They have also joined with other supporters to form the Center for Historic Shipwreck Preservation, which aids in Whydah-related recovery, conservation, research, and display, and helps other archeological shipwreck projects.