Born in the US, David L. Mearns trained as a marine scientist but has spent the entirety of his professional career working in the offshore industry and specialising in the research, location and investigation of deep-water shipwrecks. He also makes television documentaries and has written books about the shipwrecks he has found and the histories behind their losses.
How did you get into shipwreck hunting?
My first job after leaving Graduate School was with Eastport International, a small Maryland company, as a contractor to the US Navy Supervisor of Salvage. I conducted recoveries of downed aircraft and other objects lost in the deep ocean. I was hired specifically to develop a geophysical survey department in the company. This led to Eastport winning a high profile and lucrative contract to locate and film the Lucona, a cargo vessel that was purposely sunk by a time bomb as part of a conspiracy to commit insurance fraud. I was the project manager of that search and the expert witness to the criminal court trying the defendant, Udo Proksch, for murder. Despite the great depths involved (Lucona had sunk in water depths of 4,200 metres), we successfully located the wreck and our video was used as the evidence in court to convict Proksch. The project was an overwhelming success for Eastport and it started me on a personal path to specialise as a shipwreck hunter.
What do you love about it?
What I love most about my job is that it combines so many different disciplines and skills; I conduct historical research in archives and libraries, I have to put together large, complicated technical expeditions, and then I get to go to sea and lead teams of highly trained experts. Every shipwreck has a different story to tell, and as 70 percent of the planet is covered by water, the geographical scope of where I get to practise my trade is huge. I have worked in all the world’s oceans and have even searched for a shipwreck in the waters around Antarctica.
Could you talk us through the process of shipwreck hunting?
Once you’ve got a good idea where a ship has sunk and have defined an area to search, you can put together your technical plan, taking into account the environmental conditions of the search area, such as the water depth and seabed topography, as well as details about the ship itself – its size, weight, and how it might be lying on the seabed. The main tool for finding shipwrecks is still side-scan sonar, but we’ve increasingly used other technologies such as multi-beam echo sounding, magnetometers and visual imaging systems to make the searches more efficient. The key is choosing the right equipment for each specific search given these factors, while keeping with the funding available for the project.
In the 30 years you have been in the business, how has technology evolved over the years? Has the process of shipwreck hunting changed much over time?
The process hasn’t really changed much, but advances in sonar technology means we can be more efficient while searching and have a greater chance of finding what we are looking for. When I started out, the sonars were all single-frequency analogue systems that produced relatively poor images, so interpreting sonar records was almost an art form. The digital sonars we use today have advanced signal processing that produce stunningly clear images, which require almost no interpretive ability at all. The range of sonars available has also mushroomed: There are multi-frequency sonars, CHIRP sonars, synthetic aperture sonars, multi-beam echo sounding sonars, and interferometric sonars to choose from when planning a search or survey operation.
Have you ever encountered any difficulties on a hunt?
The projects I have worked on throughout my career have all been challenging; record setting operations are almost always conducted in extremely deep water in remote parts of the world, so I have encountered every conceivable difficulty at sea – the most common being impossibly rough weather, engine breakdown, equipment failures and lost gear. The worst by far is when people are injured or they suffer an illness that requires urgent medical attention, so I am very thankful I’ve only experienced this a few times.
What about the most memorable shipwreck hunt you’ve been on?
It is hard to pick the most memorable one because I’ve been very lucky in having led quite a few remarkable searches. I will always remember Lucona because it was my first major search. However, the most exciting moment was when we discovered the wreck of HMAS Sydney off the coast of Western Australia in March of 2008. Not many people gave us a chance of ever finding the Sydney as they likened the search to a “needle in a thousand haystacks”. When the wreck of Sydney popped up on our computer screens, after just 68 hours of searching, we all went a bit crazy jumping around like little children on Christmas morning! It was the single most exhilarating moment in my career.
What are some interesting artefacts you have found on your excavations?
I personally found two truly amazing artefacts during our excavation of the Esmeralda. The first is a Portuguese nau (cargo vessel) in the fleet of Vasco da Gama that sank off a remote Omani island in 1503. I found a clump of gold and silver coins that contained an extremely rare coin called the Indio that had been especially commissioned by the Portuguese King Dom Manuel I for trade with India. There was only one other Indio in the world, in a museum in Brazil, so the one I found was only the second example. The other artefact was equally as rare and historically important. It was a mariner’s astrolabe (a type of early navigation device) decorated with the Portuguese royal coat of arms and the personal emblem of Dom Manuel. Only 108 mariner’s astrolabes are known to exist and the one I found (certified as CMAC-108) is the oldest one ever discovered.
Lastly, please tell us more about your book, The Shipwreck Hunter, and what readers can expect from it.
The Shipwreck Hunter is a memoir of my career to date, as told through some of the most important shipwrecks I have found. It includes such famous shipwrecks as HMS Hood, the British bulk carrier Derbyshire, the Australian World War II hospital ship Centaur, the passenger liner SS Athenia, and the other shipwrecks mentioned in this article. In each chapter, I discuss the historical background of the ships, how they were lost and why the wrecks needed to be found. Most importantly, I write about the people lost in these ships and the impact these tragic events had on relatives who made sure their loved ones were never forgotten. Interested readers can purchase the book on amazon.co.uk.
Taken from Asian Diver issue 4/2017, “Wrecks of Asia”