National Geographic : 1999 May
ITHIN SIGHT OF THE PALE, bluff-lined beach of Cape Cod, at a spot a quarter mile from shore, a flood of bubbles bursts across the surface of a glassy sea. Emerging from the center of the explosion, clad head to toe in a blue neoprene dry suit, pops 53-year-old professional treasure hunter Barry Clifford. Decked out with an aluminum scuba tank and a full-face diver's mask, Clifford is flutter-kicking his swim fins for all he's worth, slicing through the iridescent foam and lugging an unwieldy, four-foot black cylinder to the surface. Gently, almost gingerly, Clifford sets the object on an aluminum platform hung from the rail of the 65-foot workboat Vast ExplorerII. "That's a swivel gun!" he says, breathing hard and patting the small cannon with a gloved hand. "It would have been mounted on a pivot near the ship's stern. Swivel gun! Guar anteed. The stern almost has to be nearby." After 15 years of searching the ocean floor off the town of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Clif ford believes he's finally zeroing in on what's left of the hull and loot from the first pirate ship ever discovered in North America. Called the Whydah Galley, it was said to be heavy with treasure stolen from at least 53 ships when it sank in a storm on April 26, 1717. The swivel gun-the latest find in an artifact trail that includes more than 100,000 pieces has Clifford so jazzed he launches himself onto the platform behind it. The cannon drips with weeds and is encrusted with shards of scallop shells. In the July sun, it exudes a dank odor of seawater mixed with spoiled eggs. As we gently hoist it across the Vast's rail, Clifford grins. "There's more," he says. He pulls a mesh sack from his belt and removes a plastic bag filled with sand that's flecked with gold dust. "Nice," says Cathrine Harker, an underwater archaeologist from Scotland. "There's a river of gold dust down there," Clifford says. "Really fine dust. Oh, yeah... . DONOVAN WEBSTER once spent two days among seafar ing brigands off the Philippines for a story on modern pirates. Photographer BILL CURTSINGER has contrib uted to NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC since 1971. BRIAN SKERRY is the co-author of Complete Wreck Diving.