Archaeologist Marie Kesten Zahn of Yarmouth, Mass., displays a silver coin recovered from the wreckage of the pirate ship Whydah Gally at the Whydah Pirate Museum.

The undersea explorer who discovered the Whydah Gally, the first authenticated pirate shipwreck in North America, believes he’s found where the ship’s legendary treasure lies after more than 30 years of poking around the murky waters off Cape Cod.

Barry Clifford said his expedition recently located a large metallic mass he’s convinced represents most if not all of the 400,000 coins and other riches believed to be contained on the ship.

“We think we might be at the end of the rainbow,” Clifford said in the recently opened Whydah Pirate Museum on Cape Cod, where many of the expedition’s finds are showcased.

Maritime archaeologists and historians said they’re intrigued but skeptical, mostly because he’s been disproved on other finds.

“Barry Clifford’s many claims can be very exciting if they can be verified with photographs or scientific proof,” said Paul Johnston, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., who specializes in shipwrecks. “Until then, it’s just talk.”

The former slave ship, commanded by the English pirate Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, went down in stormy seas off Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in 1717, killing all but a handful of the nearly 150-person crew. It’s believed the heavily laden ship sunk quickly, leaving the ill-gotten riches from over 50 ships at the bottom of the ocean.

But Victor Mastone, chief archaeologist for the Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archaeological Resources, that oversees shipwrecks and other undersea finds, suggests the pirates simply could have been lying.

“Did they brag more than they should have? Who knows?” he said. “We know what the pirates said they had.”

Clifford dismissed Johnston and others as longtime opponents who have refused to treat his team’s work seriously.

“Why would they be bragging to the judge about how much treasure they stole? They were hanged,” he said, referring to the fate that befell the surviving pirates of the Whydah.

The 71-year-old explorer hopes to begin investigating the suspected riches this month, but stressed the recovery process will take time. Once the mass is found and raised, his team will need to break it down gently using electrolysis and small hand tools.

“For me, it’d be great to get it all finished, but it isn’t going to get done in my lifetime,” Clifford said. “Archaeology doesn’t happen quickly if you’re doing it correctly.”

Since his 1984 discovery, Clifford and his team have returned nearly every year to the wreck, over which he has special rights.

They’ve reclaimed about 200,000 artifacts, including thousands of silver Spanish coins, hundreds of pieces and fragments of rare African gold jewelry, dozens of cannons, various colonial-era objects and other prizes.

A new find at the wreck that made him famous would be a coup for Clifford, who has been dealt setbacks on other recent expeditions.

In 2014, he claimed to have found the wreck of the Santa Maria, Christopher Columbus’ flagship from his first voyage to the Americas in 1492, off the coast of Haiti, only to have researchers from UNESCO conclude it was more likely a ship from a later era because of the presence of bronze and copper fasteners.

Last year, Clifford claimed to have located the infamous Scottish pirate Captain William Kidd’s Adventure Galley off the coast of Madagascar. UNESCO again threw cold water on the pronouncement, concluding an over 100-pound silver ingot Clifford produced as proof of his find actually was 95 percent lead.

Ulrike Guerin, an underwater heritage specialist at UNESCO, declined to comment on Clifford’s latest claim but said the Haiti and Madagascar experiences highlight how the explorer’s work lacks the “necessary scientific approach.”

ASSOCIATED PRESS

An “online exclusive” is an article or story that does not run in the print edition of the Houston Herald. Typically 2-3 are posted online every Wednesday morning. It’s another feature designed for users who purchase full web access from the Herald

Click here to subscribe for print, digital or both.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply Cancel reply