Barry Clifford and the Whydah Discovery

In 1984 Barry Clifford discovered the remains of the legendary Whydah, a behemoth 28-gun pirate ship carrying some four and a half tons of stolen treasure.

By Ian Aldrich

Aug 15 2008

Explorer and Salvager Barry Clifford

Barry Clifford

Photo Credit : Matt Kalinowski

Shipwreck salvager and underwater archaeological adventurer Barry Clifford lives in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In 1984, following years of dogged pursuit, Clifford, a Cape Cod native, discovered the remains of the legendary Whydah, a behemoth 28-gun pirate ship (and former merchant slaver) carrying some four and a half tons of stolen treasure, destroyed by a nor’easter off the Wellfleet coast in 1717. But Barry Clifford’s biggest find may be yet to come: He’s convinced he’s located the ruins of Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria just off the Haitian coast. He now works with his 29-year-old son, Brandon, at his home on the Cape.

“The adventure is always the treasure. To be able to go out with some people you know and like and go out on some high-minded adventure to solve some mystery — it doesn’t get any better than that.

“I don’t think I’m a treasure hunter. A treasure hunter sells treasure. All of the artifacts that we’ve excavated and conserved are meant for public display. We have one of the largest exhibits that National Geographic has ever put together. You take a group like Odyssey [a shipwreck recovery company], and even though they have archaeologists, they’re a publicly traded company and their investors want a return. I don’t think you can do really good science when people are breathing down your neck. We have thousands of pieces of musket shot [from the Whydah], and we could sell these things for $100 apiece if we put them in a little plastic display case and put a certificate with them. But once you sell one thing, you open up the floodgates.

Barry Clifford
Underwater explorer Barry Clifford.
Photo Credit : Matt Kalinowski

“I have a great deal of respect for Bob Ballard, but I wonder what people got out of the Titanic. To me it was like a modern colossal car wreck. Where are the lessons learned there? That’s what’s disappointing in a way about the American public. It’s like, Wow, look how many people were killed, all those people drowned. [With the Whydah] we have this unobstructed view into this period of history that very little is known about. These were outlaws — they didn’t keep written records. It’s also a big part of Massachusetts history. Cotton Mather represented two of the pirates who were acquitted. One was sold into slavery to the maternal grandfather of John Quincy Adams.

“I want the Whydah to stay together. Maybe it will end up in London. The ship is an English ship — English pirates. The English love exhibits. But it’s definitely going to be kept together as a collection.

“Christopher Columbus was looking for a route to the Indies; I’m looking for his ship. I’ve got the Discovery Channel breathing down my neck, saying, Hey, you’ve got 48 hours to find this thing; he had Queen Isabella breathing down his neck. So I have to put myself inside his head, which is really one of the fun things I do. You get to know the person. You get insight into what he was thinking.

“I’m more confident about the Santa Maria than I was about the Whydah. The facts are there. There’s so much written material. I expect to find personal belongings — things that people may have hidden in the ballast that they wanted to hide from their shipmates. We know all the names, so maybe something with somebody’s name on it. No matter what, it should be carefully scrutinized. When I say I’ve found it, I expect everybody to say, Prove it. Then if we can, that’s it.

“The trick to staying healthy on an expedition? Pepto-Bismol. I swear by it. An old explorer in South America told me about it. It coats the stomach. As long as I’ve been traveling, the first thing I always do when I get off the plane is drink a bottle of it. I tell my younger guys to do it, and they kind of scoff, and of course they’re the ones going Ehhhhhhhh in a couple of days.

“The bonus to me is to have been able to meet the people I’ve met because of what I do. I was in Scotland for three years, and I worked with Prince Andrew — he served me my dinner and washed my plate. A kid from the cranberry bogs — here I am onboard his ship.”

SEE MORE: Whydah Pirate Museum. 674 MA-28, West Yarmouth, MA. 508-534-9571;