Fog was swallowing his ship’s bow, the winds were picking up and undersea explorer Barry Clifford figured he needed to leave within an hour to beat the weather back to port.
It was time enough, he decided, for a final dive of the season over the wreck of the treasure-laden pirate ship, Whydah, off Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
That Sept. 1 dive at a spot Clifford had never explored before uncovered proof that a staggering amount of undiscovered riches — as many as 400,000 coins — might be found there.
Instead of packing up for the year, Clifford is planning another trip to the Whydah, the only authenticated pirate ship wreck in US waters.
“I can hardly wait,” he said.
The Whydah was built as a slave ship in 1716 and captured in February 1717 by pirate captain “Black Sam” Bellamy. Just two months later, it sank in a ferocious storm 400m off Wellfleet, Massachusetts, killing Bellamy and all but two of the 145 other men on board and taking down the plunder from 50 vessels Bellamy raided.
Clifford located the Whydah site in 1984 and has since documented 200,000 artifacts, including gold, guns and even the leg of a young boy who took up with the crew. He only recently got indications there may be far more coins than the about 12,000 he has already documented.
Just before his death in April, the Whydah project’s late historian, Ken Kinkor, uncovered a Colonial-era document indicating that in the weeks before the Whydah sank, Bellamy raided two vessels bound for Jamaica.
“It is said that in those vessels were 400,000 pieces of 8/8,” it read.
The 8/8 indicates one ounce (28g), the weight of the largest coin made at that time, Clifford said.
“Now we know there’s an additional 400,000 coins out there somewhere,” he said.
The final dive may have provided a big hint at where. Diver Rocco Paccione said he had low expectations when Clifford excavated a pit about 10.5m below the surface and sent him down. However, his metal detector immediately came alive with positive, or hot, readings.
“This pit was pretty much hot all the way through,” he said.
The most significant artifact brought up by Paccione was an odd-shape concretion, sort of a rocky mass that forms when chemical reactions with seawater bind metals together.
X-rays last week revealed coin-shaped masses, including some that appear to be stacked as if they were kept in bags, which is how a surviving Whydah pirate testified that the crewmen stored their riches.
Clifford does not sell Whydah treasures and said he would never sell the coins individually because he sees them as historical artifacts, not commodities. However, he has given coins away as mementos.
Ed Rodley, who studied Whydah artifacts during graduate studies in archeology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said the Whydah site keeps producing treasure decades after its discovery partly because it is so tough to work.
The site is on the edge of the surf zone, where waves start breaking toward shore. Clifford needs seven anchors to hold the boat in place and the murky ocean bottom is just as active underneath him. Rodley said any pits dug by archeologists would collapse within hours.
What Clifford has gradually gotten to, three centuries after the Whydah went down, is impressive, Rodley said.