Novelist Clive Cussler’s books frequently carry his claim that he and his organization NUMA have discovered over 60 historic shipwrecks. Its Spence’s opinion that Cussler’s claims are simply not supported by the facts. Read this and see if you agree.
First I need to explain who I am: I am underwater archaeologist, Dr. E. Lee Spence. Having found my first shipwrecks at age 12 in 1959/1960, I became one of the early pioneers of marine archaeology on historic shipwrecks. I am also the man who discovered a number of shipwrecks (including the Civil War submarine Hunley) that Clive Cussler has claimed he and/or his company NUMA discovered. I also need to explain who Cussler is. Cussler is a best selling novelist who writes adventure stories that mix fact and fiction and frequently revolve around a fictional government agency called NUMA headed by a fictional marine archaeologist named Dirk Pitt.
I consider myself a fan of Clive Cussler’s novels. He can definitely spin the tall tales and is a master of fiction. But that doesn’t mean I buy into his alleged discovery claims. I say alleged, because I don’t know which of Cussler’s shipwreck discovery claims are pure fiction, which are a stretch of the truth, and which, if any, are entirely factual.
Cussler uses the public’s interest in shipwreck discoveries as a way to garner publicity for himself and his novels, which often involve historical shipwrecks and/or treasure. I know Cussler uses the media that way because he once explained to me in great detail that he was not interested in the artifacts or salvage rights but only in the publicity. He also told me that his non-profit organization, NUMA, was created as a way to immediately write off the money he was spending on his PR driven searches for shipwrecks. Cussler once worked for a public relations firm, and bragged in one of his “non-fiction” books about the publicity stunts that he used to pull. Knowing all of that, there is simply no way that I would take any of Cussler’s claims on face value.
Cussler’s first unsuccessful search for the Hunley was in 1980. His expedition actually came after I had already filed a claim to the wreck in federal district court. Cussler had called me up wanting to meet and told me and my brother Pat not to worry about him as competition. He assured me that the expedition was just a way to promote the release of the 1980 Martin Starger movie production “Raise the Titanic,” which was based on one of his novels. Cussler got plenty of “free” publicity, but the movie bombed anyway.
Cussler has made many unsupported and/or demonstrably false claims.
Over the years, those claims have included his later disproved claim that NUMA had found the wreck of HMS Actaeon, which had been sunk at the entrance to Charleston harbor in 1776. It would have been a major discovery. But, according to the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology & Anthropology (SCIAA), NUMA did not find the Actaeon.
Another time, Cussler claimed NUMA had found the wreck of a famous Civil War ironclad in the Mississippi River, but that find was later identified by underwater archaeologist Alan Saltus as only a pile of discarded steel pipe. Cussler later claimed in a sworn deposition that the pipe had been placed there as part of a conspiracy by the Army Corps of Engineers to discredit him. To me, Cussler’s government conspiracy claims seemed irrational and sounded like paranoia.
In 1981 Cussler claimed to have discovered the wrecks of the blockade runners Norseman and Stonewall Jackson, even though I and my company, Shipwrecks Inc., had been credited with their discovery over a decade earlier in not only the Charleston papers, but in the “New York Times.” How could we both have discovered those wrecks? But that’s not all that disturbs me. Cussler claimed that he had “walked out onto the beach and laid the gradiometer squarely on top on the wreck.” He said that, at first, he thought the instrument wasn’t working, but suddenly realized he had placed it directly on top of the wreck. Yet, even though he had someone use a backhoe to dig a large hole at the site, he admittedly failed to find any portion of the 872 ton steamer’s iron hull, machinery, boilers or cargo. The supposed proof of his claim to have discovered the Stonewall Jackson was a small piece of wood and a smaller chunk of coal, neither of which are unusual to find on a beach. The reason Cussler didn’t find the iron hull of the wreck was that he was at the wrong spot. His people were digging within a couple hundred feet of the buried steamer, but since I had mentioned the general locations of both the Norseman and the Stonewall Jackson to him at our previous meeting, and he had also talked with one of my ex-partners, I am not surprised that he was that close. I am more surprised that the press bought into Cussler’s claim that a bit of coal and worm eaten wood constituted the discovery of a 223′ long iron hulled steamer. I think that the fact that the local media accepted his claims without question shows exactly how good he is at manipulating the media. Earlier this year (2011), I finally went back to the location where I had found the Norseman well over 40 years ago. I had no trouble relocating the wreckage with a Humminbird side imaging sonar. Diving on it, I found it to now have a shrimp trawl net snagged on it. I checked my GPS coordinates against the longitude & latitude that Cussler had published for the wreck. They were no match, and when I checked to see if there was anything at his coordinates for the Norseman (in case we had found two different wrecks), I found absolutely nothing but sand. I truly hadn’t expected anything more.
Cussler claims to have discovered other wrecks whose locations were never lost and were a matter of public record. But again, because they had already been mapped and weren’t lost, I don’t understand why he considers them to have been discoveries.
Perhaps Cussler’s claims can best explained by his unique definition of a discovery. During a sworn deposition in a lawsuit relating to who discovered the Hunley, Cussler was asked what constituted a discovery. Cussler answered something to the effect that if he went out into the hall and saw a water-fountain he would have discovered it, and that everyone else who came along afterwards would also discover it. Cussler appears to believe that thousands of people could make sequential discoveries of the same thing, even if it was never lost. That does not fit with my definition of discovery and I doubt that it does with that of most people.
In 1980 Clive Cussler claimed that NUMA had discovered this wreck of the USS Keokuk. In an interview, Cussler vividly described the location as so close to the Morris Island light that you had to look up to see the tower. Cussler also claimed that his diver had strode the decks and that the wreck was intact and could be raised. Of course, none of that was true. The wreck was not only not at that location, it had been blasted apart and heavily scrapped. What might surprise people is that was not an honest mistake, Cussler knew the truth. I am in a special position to know that because, in an effort to help him, I had already shared with him copies of my research. Parts of my research had been gleaned from the salvage log of Professor Benjamin Maillefert, an engineer who specialized in underwater blasting. Maillefert had been in charge of the scrapping of theKeokuk after the war. My research itemized the work done by Maillefert’s company. I had also told Cussler about dives that I made on the wreck with Jim Batey in the 1960s. We had dived the wreck at the request of Captain Junior Magwood after he had accidentally snagged his nets on it. In 1981, NUMA returned to Charleston for another expedition and Cussler once again announced that they had discovered the Keokuk, only this time at a significantly different location. For some reason (friendship? incompetence? benign neglect?), the press never raised questions about the false claims that Cussler had made the previous year. Based on information released by Cussler, the NUMA team was probably at the correct location in 1981. For more on the Keokuk go tohttp://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=407686916485
In 1995 Cussler told the press that NUMA had discovered the Hunley in 18′ of water inshore of the wreck of the Housatonic(Hunley’s victim). If true, that would have meant that the location I had published for the Hunley was wrong by well over a mile. I had reported the wreck in 27-29′ of water several hundred yards offshore of the Housatonic. The differences were so great, that it couldn’t have been an incorrect plotting of the locations and we couldn’t both be right. Someone was either wrong or outright lying. Since Cussler’s claim was supported by pictures of the wreck, it led many people to believe he had discovered the Hunley. It was approximately a year before a reporter learned from the archaeologists examining the site that the wreck was at the depth and location that I had reported it. The reporter got Cussler to admit that he had “lied” about the location. He claimed it was to throw off would be treasure hunters, but what it really did was to make it look like I had been wrong about the location. Had Cussler told the truth about the wreck’s location on the day he released the pictures, it is doubtful that anyone would have credited him with the Hunley’s “discovery.” At most the 1995 expedition (which incidentally was not even directed by Cussler, but rather by underwater archaeologist Dr. Mark Newell of SCIAA) would have been credited with the “verification” of my earlier discovery and for taking “the first video” of the wreck. Those would be important credits, but Cussler wanted far more than he and/or any of the people on the 1995 expedition deserved. He wanted and got credit for the actual discovery. Newell is an honest man and has given a sworn statement severely criticizing Cussler and stating that he (Newell) used my maps showing the Hunley’s location to plan the expedition and has repeatedly stated that he believes that I found the wreck in 1970 and that what the 1995 SCIAA/NUMA expedition did was to confirm the identity of the wreck. (Dr. Newell also acknowledged my discovery in an email, clearly saying I should be credited with finding the wreck “not the NUMA divers, and certainly not Clive Cussler.” To read his full email go to:https://hunleyfinder.wordpress.com/article/expedition-s-director-credits-spence-9a3pk7ykcgda-14/
In Cussler’s report on NUMA’s Project 3 (Search for the Hunley, the Cumberland and the Florida, July 1980), he wrote “Robert Fleming, a fine guy and one of our great maritime researchers, came up with the lion’s share of the data. He went two steps past the other archivists and found the Naval Board of Inquiry record into the sinking of theHousatonic. The 115 pages were, of course, written in longhand and the wax seal was still unbroken on the folder.” (The discovery of such a document, if unknown to historians before that time, would be extremely important and impressive. It would definitely add to Cussler’s and NUMA’s credibility, if true. But, I personally find it difficult to understand how the National Archives could have copied that particular document without the National Archives staff having broken the wax seal when they filmed those records as part of Roll 169 of the National Archive Records Service Microcopy 273 prior to my purchasing a copy of that roll for only $6.00 in 1974. I still have both the microfilm and my receipt for when I purchased it.) Cussler’s account of the document’s discovery makes for good reading, but it is obviously fiction and had no place in the NUMA 1981 expedition project report or in Cussler’s allegedly non-fiction bookThe Sea Hunters. When you represent a book as non-fiction you are expected to stick to the truth!
This should not be construed as an attack on the qualifications of people who have worked with Cussler as volunteers or paid employees. I have no doubt that many of them are qualified in their own right. And, I have no doubt that they actually have discovered or surveyed some of the wrecks. But I am concerned that Cussler’s friendship and largess may be why none of them (other than Dr. Newell who was actually an employee of SCIAA and not Cussler or NUMA) appear to have ever publicly acknowledged my 1970 discovery of theHunley and/or challenged some of Cussler’s more absurd claims.
As to Cussler’s believability, in a December 15, 1999 interview on “Yahoo Chat,” Cussler stated “My personal belief is that we never went to the moon.” In other words, he thinks the moon landing was just a publicity stunt. (Something like he might pull if he had the resources?)
Cussler describes himself as a dilettante when it comes to archaeology. Dictionary.com defines a dilettante as: 1. A person who claims an area of interest, such as the arts, without real commitment or knowledge. 2. A person with an amateur interest in the arts. Based on those definitions, I think Cussler’s use of the word dilettante to describe himself is correct.
In his book, “The Sea Hunters,” Cussler wrote of using psychics on his expeditions and explained their lack of success as follows: “The problem for psychics with locating a sunken ship is that there are no landmarks on open water. No nearby railroad, water tanks, telephone poles, or rivers to mark a position.” Is he serious? Does he really think that’s why his use of psychics on his expeditions hasn’t been successful? Most of the shipwrecks he has searched for have been well with the sight of shore, where everything from houses to trees can be used as navigational ranges. If his psychics failed to find something perhaps he should have been relying more on scientific equipment and solid historical research.
What is he like as a person? Is he a good guy? When I first met him thirty years ago, I was impressed with his wit and humor, but over the years I have seen more of what I view as his real character. I haven’t liked it. Not just his self admitted lies about the Hunley but his callous disregard of others.
The day the Hunley was raised, I asked Cussler if he had any recent news from the much respected British undersea explorer Sydney Wignall, who I knew had shared information with Cussler on several important wrecks targeted by NUMA. I asked, because some years before Syd had visited me in my home and I had great respect for the man. Although we had lost touch, I had continued to think of him as a friend. Cussler’s brusque reply, was “Oh, that worthless piece of shit. He’s dead.” What a way to speak of a man who, as a secret agent, had risked his life for freedom, and had been knighted by the Queen of England for his underwater archaeological discoveries relating to the Spanish Armada shipwrecks.*
Can Cussler be trusted? I don’t think so. The company that made the movie Sahara, which was based on Cussler’s book by the same name, later sued him claiming that they had relied on Cussler’s reported sales figures of 100 million copies of his books only to find out later that his total sales were less than half of that. (See “Litigation reveals inflated numbers”: http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117964140?refcatid=13&printerfriendly=true ) The plaintiffs proved in court that Cussler greatly inflated his book sales by approximately sixty million copies. The company was awarded a multi-million dollar judgment and millions more in attorney fees, which (last I heard) they had yet to collect.
During a related 2007 breach-of-contract trial, Cussler’s lawyers were reported as saying they wanted to prevent the author from being portrayed as “an unstable, racist crackpot,” a “befuddled alcoholic” and an “overall bad guy.” I can certainly see why they wouldn’t want him portrayed that way. (Note: The quotes attributed to his lawyers, were taken from a February 9, 2007, “Los Angeles Times” article titled “Cussler aims to avoid being cast as a ‘bad guy'” by Times Staff Writer Glenn F. Bunting. See:
* MORE ABOUT WIGNALL:
Sydney Wignall (1923- ),a former MI6 agent,was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the Himalayan Club. As a marine archaeologist he discovered two flagships of the Spanish Armada, searched for Drake’s coffin off Panama, and discovered the wrecks of several galleons in British, Portugese and Panamanian waters. He has also searched for Loch monsters in Scotland. He lives with his wife in North Wales. In 1955, Sydney Wignall organized the Welsh Himalayan expedition to climb Tibet’s highest mountain, Gurla Mandhata. But Wignall and two of his companions were more than just mountaineers; before setting out, Wignall had been recruited by a covert faction within Indian intelligence to report on Chinese military operations in newly invaded Tibet. Wignall and his band of unlikely spies were soon captured and imprisoned by the Red Army, thus beginning an ordeal that would draw on their last reserves of physical and emotional strength. Subjected to rat-infested, subfreezing cells and months of torturous interrogation, Wignall and his colleagues refused to allow their spirits to be broken. Ultimately, international pressure convinced the Chinese to release the three spies. But instead of being flown safely home, they were ordered to return via the Seti Gorge in the middle of winter, a deadly Himalayan pass considered suicidal even in summer. Their bodies wracked with frostbite and dysentery, their final trek to freedom is an amazing testament to their will to survive. Read his book:Spy on the Roof of the World
© 2010 by Edward Lee Spence
To read more about the Hunley see: N&W: Time Capsule From the Sea – US News and World Report.
For more about Dr. Spence’s Discovery of the Hunley go to: The Discovery of the Hunley by Dr. Dr. E. Lee Spence. https://hunleyfinder.wordpress.com/article/the-discovery-of-the-hunley-by-dr-e-lee-9a3pk7ykcgda-2/
You might also want to read “History From Beyond the Deep: Raising the Hunley” in the June/July 2011 issue of HISTORY MAGAZINE. Its author, John Christopher Fine, (who is anAdmiralty attorney, marine biologist and NOGI award winner and who has carefully researched Spence’s evidence),credits Spence with the discovery of the Hunley.
Note: On April 30, 2010, MontresCharmex SA (of Switzerland) presented Dr. Spence with their “Undersea Explorers Award” and a $4,000, limited edition, World Record setting, 20,000 feet CX Swiss Military Watch™. The award read in part “in honor of his lifetime of underwater exploration and his many important archaeological discoveries, especially the wreck of the Hunley, first submarine in history to sink an enemy ship.” See: Award Certificate andhttps://www.facebook.com/media/set/comments/?set=a.389351875676.173329.230314360676