It’s not often that you see “shipwreck hunter” listed on someone’s business card or résumé, but that is indeed National Geographic grantee David Mearns’s career choice. For him, setting world records and recovering centuries-old treasures is just another day at the office—or ocean, rather.
“I look for shipwrecks for a number of different reasons,” Mearns says. “For archaeology, historical re-creations, insurance purposes, television documentaries, even conducting salvage of the cargoes on board.”
Mearns has found about 25 major, targeted shipwrecks (the number is closer to 70 if you include all the shipwrecks he has “stumbled” across along the way), and in doing so has set three Guinness World Records: the deepest live Internet broadcast, the deepest commercial cargo salvage, and the deepest shipwreck ever found. “The record we still hold is the deepest shipwreck ever found and that’s nearly 5,800 meters,” says Mearns. “I’m still waiting for that one to be broken.”
While Mearns’s latest find may have been in pretty shallow water, the discovery was nothing short of monumental. Working with Oman’s Ministry of Heritage and Culture and with support from the National Geographic Society, Mearns unearthed the Esmeralda, a vessel from famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s fleet and the oldest ship ever found from the European Age of Exploration.
So how did Mearns end up in a remote region of the Arabian Peninsula, searching for a 16th-century shipwreck from the European Age of Discovery? How does one even become a shipwreck hunter? “I don’t think it’s something that enters your head when you’re in school,” Mearns answers. “I have a degree in marine biology and a graduate degree in marine geology, and very simply I didn’t want to work for an oil and gas company, so I went into the offshore industry. The company that I worked for did worldwide search and recovery for the U.S. Navy. That is what started me specializing in finding shipwrecks.”
What a lot of people don’t realize is that shipwreck hunting actually begins on land, so you need more than a good set of lungs and sea legs. “You start with research and archives, you’re working like a detective. What piece of paper gives me the equivalent of an ‘X’ on a map?” Mearns questions. “I always liked research. I was very curious. I would not let something lie.”
Mearns dedication and passion is rooted in his thrill for bringing history to life. “A history book can only go so far, but if you can actually have an object as near as possible to that moment of those early ages, well that really strikes through. That’s the stuff people remember,” he says.
That means that finding shipwrecks is only part of the job. After that, Mearns works with archaeologists and other experts to collect and care for the artifacts at the site. For example, artifacts recovered from the Esmeralda have already been studied and conserved and are currently displayed in Oman’s National Museum.
“Archaeology is not about individual finds. It’s about telling the story of what life was like on board, trading patterns, the people that they met. This is where the fun bit starts, you start bringing in real experts who can look at these finds and start putting this whole story together,” Mearns says. “What we’re already seeing with the ceramics is the route that the Esmeralda took. There’s West African ceramics, there’s ceramics from the Indian Ocean, there’s ceramics from the Far East, and that will tell its own story of the route that this ship took, but also the other ships that it came across and, basically, in piracy took objects from.”
The ceramics and other antiquities are not sitting neatly in a pile on the seafloor for easy retrieval, of course. Mearns’s team spent more than a thousand hours underwater using metal detectors and giant vacuum-like airlifts, removing 2,000-plus pound boulders, and chiseling away at concretions with delicate antiquities inside. But 2,800 artifacts later, the story of the Esmeralda continues to reveal itself and offers a glimpse into an era that marked the beginning of globalization, where East met West.
“To come to work and travel around the world, work with so many interesting people, and then to see what I do have a meaning to lots of other people—and not just people, different countries—to have done something so important and long lasting is a great, great satisfaction,” Mearns says. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else and I won’t. This is what I will continue to do.”
Watch and read more about Mearns’s discovery of the Esmeralda and check out the entire Best Job Ever series.
David Mearns is a grantee of the National Geographic Society Expeditions Council and the National Geographic Society/Waitt Grants Program. Learn more about the science and exploration supported by the nonprofit National Geographic Society at natgeo.org/grants.
Producer/Editor: Nora Rappaport
Series Producer/Graphics: Chris Mattle
Video: Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture