“People think ‘That was it, the deep oceans became accessible to man with Titanic in 1985’. Well, that’s completely false.”
David Mearns is one of the world’s pre-eminent shipwreck hunters. His company, Blue Water Recoveries, has an 88% recovery rate. He discovered the HMAS Sydney, and the Kormoran, the HMS Hood, the Royal Navy flagship sunk by the Bismarck, Vasco da Gama’s Esmerelda (which sunk in 1503), the Lucona a cargo ship sunk by a time bomb that murdered its crew and the Rio Grande, the deepest shipwreck ever found – at 5,762 metres.
How to Become a Shipwreck Hunter
But Mearns wasn’t interested in history at University. He actively avoided it, instead, he concentrated on getting degrees in marine biology and later, marine geology. He found work in the offshore industry, helping search and recovery for the US Navy. This is what sparked his now lifelong obsession as a shipwreck hunter: part detective, part archaeologist, part deep ocean adventurer – and historian.
His passion for the stories of the past drives him thousands of metres below the waves.
If you could go back in time and stand on the deck of any ship, what would it be?
Now that’s a question I’ve never had. I have to say this – I would want to stand on a ship with Shackleton and his men. That was true exploration. I’m a fellow of the Explorer’s Club and have been for a very long time. It’s generous to call us explorers when so much of the world is known. I mean I can do so much today with Google sitting in my office, compared to during Shackleton’s day.
I just have the ultimate amount of admiration for what they went through and the challenges that they were ready to face. What they were prepared to do. To be away from home, not for a few weeks or months, but for years. To be on a ship and to be so close to touching Antarctica, and then being stranded in the ice and then say ‘oh well we’ll just have to over-winter and try next year’ – without going home.
And every man on that expedition would have done it again. That’s the genius of Shackleton. I’d love to be close to that genius and to see him and how he led his band. And be a part of that. That to me you would be the ultimate.
“But, some projects are more about a passion for the magic of it. So for example, the search for Sydney and Kormoran, the first four years of that, I funded myself.”
Being a Shipwreck Hunter is a job. It’s a cool job, but it is a business. How does that work?
People often ask me ‘what kind of business model do you have?’ You can’t really have a business model or a sort of predictable business going forward on the basis of hunting shipwrecks. You can’t plan to investigate accidents whether it’s shipwrecks or planes that crash. You don’t really have a market where you knock on shipowner’s doors saying ‘give us a call if your ship sinks’.
The only thing that you could really do to put yourself in a position to continue to get work in this field is to make sure that every job that you have is successful. It’s really very critical and I operate on that basis. You’re only as good as your last project. I think in the past nearly 20 years I’ve had a very good track record and that’s the best way for people to keep coming to your door and saying ‘listen, we’d like you to find this shipwreck’. Deliver repeatedly. So it is a business.
But, some projects are more about a passion for the magic of it.So, for example, the search for Sydney and Kormoran, the first four years of that, I funded myself. All my own research, all my own time, all my own travel, flying to Australia. When I did get the project off the ground, I was the expedition leader for one-third of my fee to make it more affordable – that was to me the right thing to do.
Your double degree in marine biology and marine geology is reasonably rare in your profession – is it a competitive advantage for you?
Yes, it is. I can train somebody to do my job, to read these sonar images and be able to distinguish between rocks and wrecks as well as I can. But the background that I have as a geologist and also as a geologist who studied in the marine environment and not a land based geologist, it does help me. I understand geological patterns. It gives you a better fundamental understanding of what the sonar is doing and how it’s interacting with a piece of rock versus something that is man-made.
You’re a father with three kids – it must be hard to have a normal family life with you away all the time.
Yes, I’m away a lot and it’s not just going to sea on an expedition. It’s travelling to do research and try to meet sponsors, all sorts of things. Just now, I’ll be away for two weeks and I leave the day of my twin daughters’ birthday.
I guess the only thing that’s of solace is they’re used to that because I’ve doing it since the time that they were little. And they don’t get fazed. It’s only when I’m gone for over a month or so and that’s rare. My wife and I I’ve been able to organise our life in a way. It’s not easy. It’s not easy on her, but it is manageable.
What are the mechanics of actually finding a wreck? How many nautical miles do you cover in a day?
Well in searching for shipwrecks or anything on the ocean there’s a trade-off between range and resolution, and your sonars are set to that.Sonars all operate on different frequencies.The higher the frequency, the higher the resolution, but the lower the range.
So for instance on MH370 they are using very high-frequency sonars and their range is limited but they’re sure to see bits of the plane only a metre in size.
When we’re looking for a shipwreck that’s 100 metres long or even 200 metres long, we use a lower frequency sonar and increase the range so the square nautical miles we can cover in a day goes up drastically. And the range is enormous. Even in the deep ocean.
To search for small objects, you can cover say 15 to 20 square nautical miles per day. Whereas with modern systems we can search 70 square nautical miles per day when you’re looking for a lost ship.
It’s horses for courses. You pick the equipment and your research methodology and you plan for the type of target that you’re looking at, the type of geology that’s there. So that’s the other complicating factor. If you’ve got a flat seabed with no mountainous terrain then you can use wider ranges. You don’t have to worry about so much complicating geology making it difficult to see your target. If you’re looking in mountainous terrain, it’s a different story.
My career started in the 1980s and the equipment we’re using today was never even conceived of. I’ve had to grow with the industry, and grow with the technology.
A shipwreck hunter seems to be part sailor, diver, researcher, wrangler, fundraiser, politician and organiser. What is the most interesting part for you now, as opposed to what it used to be when you were younger?
I didn’t start as a researcher, so that is something that I sort of picked midway through my career, when I started researching for H.M.S. Hood, in 1995. I find that really fascinating. Finding shipwrecks, both modern and ancient, there’s a moment of discovery. In research, you have those same moments of discovery, they’re just the ones that happened in archives or libraries. It’s just as satisfying to find a document as it is the final ship. It leads you to a clue that you know gives you a very good chance of finding the shipwreck you’re looking for.
When you’re at sea, it’s exciting because there’s a lot at stake. It’s very pressure filled. You’re spending a lot of money per day. We try to stay as safe as possible but you know people can get injured doing some of these jobs. There’s a lot on your mind during that time and you really have to be prepared really almost to the point where you’re sort of in training to be able to react to anything that’s happening on any single day at any single moment.
You also have to make sure you complete the job on time and on budget! And that everybody goes home safe and all your equipment is there at the end of the job. Because you don’t just have a couple of guys in a bit of scuba gear. You have remote submersibles and submarines and things like that.
A deep water project, thousands of metres deep, the instruments that you’re putting in the water, whether it’s a side scan sonar or an ROV or an AUV, you’re talking half a million dollars to six million dollars. These things are on the end of a cable or sometimes there’s no cable at all. So there is a risk of a loss, and like most people in my industry, I have suffered losses. So there’s real pressure when you’re at sea.
“There’s so much more to do. We really we need to be looking at mapping the entire ocean floor. Hopefully I can contribute to that going forward – really making sure that the oceans are explored. It’s an undiscovered planet.”
What common misconceptions do people have about your job when they talk to you?
I think probably the biggest misconception people don’t really understand how far you can go down as a human in the oceans. Whether you’re diving on scuba or in a submersible. Everyone considers the Titanic to be the most important shipwreck ever found because it’s so famous. Titanic was found in 1985 by a combined French-American expedition, but Bob Ballard got most of the credit.That was his Mount Everest. People think “well that was it, the deep oceans became accessible to man, with Titanic in 1985”. Well, that’s completely false.
Man reached the deep ocean in 1960. And in the early 1970s, there were American secret expeditions that were finding ships in 5000 meters of water, much deeper than Titanic (which sits 3800 meters the waves).
Bob Ballard is certainly somebody to be respected and admired, but there were people before him that did it, but they’re not written about and they’re not discussed because it was all done for the U.S. Navy on secret missions.
There’s so much more to do. We really we need to be looking at mapping the entire ocean floor. Hopefully, I can contribute to that going forward – really making sure that the oceans are explored. It’s an undiscovered planet.
Is there a significant wreck that you’d really like to find?
I have been living in England for the last 22 years. I’m a dual national. This is my home, but I was born in America and for America, the USS Indianapolis is the ship.
(Editor’s update: less than a month after this interview, the Indianapolis was discovered).
This was the cruiser that delivered components of the Hiroshima atom bomb, but it was such a secret mission that when it was sunk by a Japanese submarine with a very high loss of life – it wasn’t on anybody’s radar. Nobody knew it sank and nobody acted upon it until our men were found floating in the water three days later.
It was a really tragic story in a number of ways. Probably the most awful aspect of it all, in addition to this high loss of life, was the fact that the Captain was made a scapegoat for the action and he was court-martialled for the loss of his ship, and ultimately committed suicide. It was a tragic story on many levels.
“It is the ultimate challenge – which first attracted me to it. It is the most difficult thing to find. It’s not just 3000 metres deep. It’s in the permanently ice-covered Weddell Sea. In Antarctica.”
But the biggest one is Shackleton’s Endurance. This is one that is absolutely a passion project and I’ve been working on for decades now. It is the ultimate challenge – which first attracted me to it. It is the most difficult thing to find. It’s not just 3000 metres deep. It’s in the permanently ice-covered Weddell Sea.In Antarctica. And we would be enduring the same risks of the unforgiving ice pack that destroyed the ship.
To me, it is the ultimate project and it’s gone beyond just a technical challenge. It’s really now a passion for the Shackleton story. I’m very close to the family. They are very good friends of mine. It’s a real love for the heroic age of Antarctic polar exploration. I think it’s it would be an amazing project that would touch people around the world. I just hope that in my lifetime there’s an opportunity to be involved in discovering that shipwreck.
— Oscar Hillerstrom, Digital Producer.
David Mearns’ new book, The Shipwreck Hunter, is available in our online store.