U.S. National Park Service

Sunken ships and the stories they tell

By Shelley Fralic - Vancouver Sun

When we first tracked down James Delgado, a few weeks back, he was in Pompeii, Italy, on a working vacation with his wife Ann, exploring the ashy ruins of the fabled Roman Empire city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Before Pompeii, he was undersea, on the bottom of the ocean off Spain, poring over the wreckage of a seventh-century Phoenician ship.

This week he's been home for a little R&R in Steveston, but Saturday he's off again, heading for St. John's, N.L., and a return trip to that most famous shipwreck of all: the Titanic.

If that is but a taste of a month in the life of a modern-day explorer, it's almost impossible to absorb the breadth of what James Delgado has done, is doing and will do as one of the planet's most renowned maritime archeologists.

At 52, he is the kind of man for whom rust never sleeps, an explorer, diver, historian, lecturer, television host, sea hunter, author (he has written or edited more than 30 books) and, if you ever had the pleasure, quietly impassioned storyteller.

There are many stories to tell. The Delgado CV is a blur of accomplishment. Born in San Jose, he attended universities in Southern California, worked with the U.S. National Park Service as a park historian in places like Alcatraz and became hooked on shipwrecks when he stumbled upon the excavation, in downtown San Francisco, of a buried shipwreck from the gold rush. 

The underwater archeology bug hit hard. By 23, Delgado had knowledge and experience and diving certification, and today estimates he's explored more than 100 sunken ships in oceans all over the globe, from the Mediterranean to Australia, from the Bikini Atoll to the Arctic, from the Baltic to Juno Beach.

There was the USS Arizona, the USS Utah, the Japanese battleship Nagato, the USS Saratoga, the USS Monitor and, in the Sea of Japan, Kublai Khan's lost fleet. Brigs, destroyers, aircraft carriers, battleships, polar explorers, submarines -- the Delgado dive list is not only historically significant, but fantastically exotic, an underwater narrative of maritime history.

In 1991, Delgado moved to Canada, settling into the job as executive director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, raising its profile through initiatives like the re-enactment of the Northwest Passage voyage aboard the St. Roch II, and rescuing and restoring the Ben Franklin, an oceanographic research vessel.

Along the way, he earned a PhD in archeology at SFU, became a Canadian citizen and was a cult hit on the cable television show, The Sea Hunters, co-hosting with fellow shipwreck hound, author Clive Cussler.

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