Seems everybody's on the hunt for the USS Bonhomme Richard

Underwater archeologist Alexis Catsambis - Photo Astrid Riecken

By Annys Shin - Washington Post

Captain Ahab had Moby Dick. Bob Neyland's white whale is the Bonhomme Richard.

For decades, thrillseekers, archeologists and professional treasure hunters have searched for the wreckage of the USS Bonhomme Richard, a Continental Navy ship captained by John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War that sank on Sept. 25, 1779, off the coast of Yorkshire, England, in the choppy waters of the North Sea.

But the ship is legally the property of the U.S. Navy, which is responsible for preserving whatever may be left of it. A big part of that job falls to Neyland, chief archaeologist for the Navy's Underwater Archeology Branch, based at the Washington Navy Yard.

The tiny unit is responsible for identifying and preserving sunken and historically important Navy vessels from colonial-era warships to World War II fighter planes.

Created in 1996, the branch has had as many as eight employees, but budget cuts have sliced that to four, including Neyland. After salaries, the branch operates on a budget of about $37,000.

Neyland augments that by teaming up with other Navy offices, nonprofit groups, federal agencies and state governments.

With their help, he has been able to join three expeditions in the past four years to look for the Bonhomme Richard.

He would like to be part of the crew that finds the ship, but he has a lot of competition. Treasure hunting has become mass infotainment, thanks to TV shows such as "Deep Sea Detectives" on the History Channel and "Treasure Quest" on the Discovery Channel.

Shipwreck hunters include independent archaeologists, descendants of shipwreck victims and private salvagers seeking to cash in on what they find.

That burgeoning interest in sunken treasure has an upside: a steady stream of discoveries.

In 1995, a nonprofit group backed by adventure novelist Clive Cussler found the wreck of the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate Civil War submarine, off the coast of Charleston, S.C. (An earlier explorer claims to have identified its resting place in 1970).

In 2000, the Navy helped raise the Hunley, which contained the remains of its eight-man crew.

The sub, propelled with a hand crank, was designed to pick off Union ships blockading the port of Charleston.

The Hunley sank in 1864. The raised vessel and its contents, now in South Carolina, are estimated to be worth as much as $40 million.


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