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Meet the Adventurer Who Found Hundreds of Millions Worth of Sunken Treasure

Having discovered shipwrecks and artifacts worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Dr. Spence is living the Uncharted life, for real.
March 15, 2016, 6:45pm

Dr. E Lee Spence. Photos are copyright 2015, by E.L. Spence

The story of the original Uncharted: Drake's Fortune is fantastical in extremis. The player-controlled Nathan Drake—a treasure hunter, adventurer, smart-ass, and crack-shot with a PM-9mm—discovers the final resting place of his ancestor, Sir Francis (Drake), on the ocean floor off Panama. But upon bringing the great captain's coffin to the surface, he finds only a diary. Within its pages, in the British knight's own writing, are directions—to El Dorado, the mythical South American city of gold.


So began one of modern gaming's most colorful franchises, designed and delivered by Crash Bandicoot creators Naughty Dog. 2007's Drake's Fortune was followed in 2009 by Among Thieves and in 2011 by the PlayStation 3 trilogy concluding Drake's Deception, the end of which sees Nathan and his friends flying away into the sunset. There have been spin-offs, too—Fight for Fortune, a card game for the Vita, and Drake's Fortune prequel Golden Abyss, also for Sony's handheld. But the "main" series, the three PS3 releases, have played a little like present-day versions of the Indiana Jones movies before Shia LaBeouf showed up, possessing fast-paced plots and spectacular set-pieces, while all the time wearing a smile as the sparks fly.

'Uncharted 4: A Thief's End,' story trailer

And on May 10 comes Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, set several years after the end of Drake's Deception. What we've seen of the game—a PS4 exclusive, naturally—is stunning, while its makers' promises of Drake having to sacrifice more than he ever has before could mean its plot is taking a darker turn than what we've been used to. It should avoid doing a Kingdom of the Crystal Skull—although whether or not its leading man will make it to the credits in one piece very much remains uncertain. He's been shot at enough times—surely, one of these days, one of those bullets is going to stick. But then, that comes with the territory—real-life treasure hunters have been known to attract trouble.


"My life has been full of life-threatening adventures, including being stabbed twice and shot once," says Dr. E Lee Spence, a pioneer in the field of underwater archaeology, a world-renowned treasure hunter, and just about as close to an actual living, breathing Nathan Drake as you're ever going to find. Born in 1947 and a graduate of the University of South Carolina before completing his doctorate at the College of Marine Arts, Dr. Spence discovered his first shipwreck at 12 years old and has been hooked on the hunt ever since. His continuing story sounds as if it could be lifted straight from the pages of a novel. Indeed, he's written his share of non-fiction books—and is currently writing another, on shipwrecks of the Bahamas.

I spoke to Dr. Spence about his career, his passion, to plot the surprising parallels between a lifetime of adventure on screen, and another that hasn't had time for distractions like video games. This is a long read, because everything Dr. Spence told me was fascinating. So get comfortable.

VICE: Tell me what stirred your obvious fascination with seeking out treasure? Was it something in stories you'd read, or some discovery in the real world that triggered this love of questing for sunken ships and seeing what lies with them?
Dr. E Lee Spence: My father was in military intelligence and, like some of the spies in those novels, he relaxed by working in his garden. When I was four or five, we lived in Paris, France, and one day while digging in his garden he found a Stone Age bead and a flint projectile point. He showed them to me, and my two older brothers, and we were soon rooting around trying to find our own treasures.


The following year, we visited family in Daytona, Florida. My father soon had me collecting seashells and taught me all the scientific names. More importantly, he showed me how to cup my hands above my eyes and trap air as I ducked my head below the waves. The resulting bubble served as a crude facemask, and I could actually see and find things underwater. That became a whole new world to me.

The next step in catching "treasure fever" was also due to my father, although I doubt that was his intent. For Christmas, when I was nine and we were living in Indochina, he gave me two beautiful, leather bound books: Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. If I wasn't hooked on adventure and treasure before, I was after reading them.

There are a lot more wrecks out there than most people can conceive. Worldwide, there are millions.

You found your first wrecks at 12. That doesn't really sound like something most 12 year olds would be doing. What did your friends think? And was that it, at that age—you'd caught the bug, no turning back from this way of life?
My father had taught me that the key to success was hard work, and to follow my dreams. I dreamed of adventure, discovering shipwrecks, and salvaging treasure. When I was 11 or 12, I designed and built my own diving gear. I knew my mother would never let me in the water with it, so I kept it secret. I would peddle my bike miles to get to my dive destinations. The first time I used it, I almost drowned, and had to completely redesign it, but I finally got something to work.


I found lots of loose artifacts, and soon found my first shipwreck. My first discoveries were largely down to luck but, from persistence and years of looking, my eyes had become well trained at spotting even the smallest artifacts. I'd read that most ships were wrecked by running aground on reefs and rocks, so I looked for shallow spots, close to shore. There are a lot more wrecks out there than most people can conceive. Worldwide there are millions of shipwrecks. I actually found five wrecks and literally handfuls of ancient coins before I was 13.

The summer I was 14, I bagged groceries for tips and made enough to buy two second-hand scuba regulators, with tanks and back packs. One of the tanks was actually an old fire extinguisher. I didn't have a car, so the extra set of scuba gear allowed me to trade use of my gear to older friends for rides to nearby rivers and beaches, where I found still more artifacts and shipwrecks. At first my friends didn't believe my stories, but the mounting piles of artifacts soon convinced them it was real. I started hiring my friends to work with me, and they caught the bug, too. Almost every one of those guys went on to make their own discoveries, do documentaries, and publish books. We are all friends to this day.

You've recovered articles and artifacts adding up to a very impressive monetary value, running well into the millions. But just how rewarding is it as a treasure hunter, in terms of what you take away?
At 12, you live at home, and you can't buy cars or fast women, so money was certainly not the initial objective. I was quickly making it, but money was simply a by-product of doing what I was passionate about. I loved history and adventure and that was what I was really after.


Today, I have been responsible for the recovery of artifacts with a total value of over a hundred million dollars. But, when doing it on a large scale, treasure salvage can be a very expensive business and governments always take their part, as do investors. Five failed marriages were another high cost I paid, and I have had plenty of very lean times, but I must admit I have lived better than most people in this business. I have owned beautiful homes, eaten in the finest restaurants, partied with famous gangsters, politicians, and movie stars. It's been an almost unbelievable life.

I am again married, this time to an absolutely wonderful woman, who is beautiful both inside and out. She loves me and, unlike a couple of others, is definitely not after my fame and money. Her being almost 30 years my junior doesn't hurt, either.

Dr. E Lee Spence with a recovered flintlock pistol

Just how much time goes into researching the potential location of a shipwreck, and then actually planning to go there for real? This must be expensive—so you can't rely on a best guess, right?
I was introduced to the government documents, maps, and rare books collection by a friendly librarian, and I started researching shipwrecks very early. Research quickly became a huge part of my life. I don't do drugs, but I often describe research as my "drug of choice," as it allows me to escape into a world of adventure. On occasion, I have come across information so precise that, once in the targeted area, it enables me to locate the wreck in a matter of minutes, instead of the months or years you might expect.


But, learning to do that level of research, and do it both fast and accurately, can take a lifetime of effort. I have now been researching and finding shipwrecks for well over 50 years, so it's second nature to me. However, it wasn't always so easy.

I researched the wreck of the Civil War blockade runner Georgiana for a number of years before finding her (in 1965). Once you have figured out where to look, you still have to put together the rest of the pieces that are necessary to make an expedition a success. If you aren't spending your own money, which I have often done, it means getting investors. That can be time consuming and you really need to know both business and law. Once you have the funding, you still need the permits, equipment, people, and more. You can't just love history; you have to be a combination salesman, inventor, businessman, and scientist. Both in doing the research and in putting together the expeditions, you have to pay attention to all the parts that make the whole.

The most expensive part of research is time, more than anything else. Not only are you not getting paid while you research, but your time is the only thing you can't buy back. I am now at the beginning of what I suspect will be my biggest and most successful project yet. I have years of time wrapped up in the research, but I now have the legal rights, have been on the wrecks—it's multiple wrecks—and absolutely know we will be finding treasure.


The bond between fellow undersea explorers, it's sort of like the 'band of brothers' effect in wartime.

Have you ever had a protégé or two, younger treasure-seekers who've come to you for guidance, and you've helped them on their way?
The first time I realized that people thought of me as an expert, was when I was a sophomore in college. A man knocked on my door and told me that he had driven from Texas to South Carolina just meet me. I had done almost the same thing when, at 17, I had hitchhiked over 500 miles each way to meet a famous treasure diver that I heard was going to be giving a lecture in Miami. But, I think this man was surprised when he saw me. He was 20 years my senior. I was in school and not ready to have an old guy as my student.

By the time I was in my early-20s, I was running major expeditions. By my mid-20s I had grown a long beard, to make me look older. I became an editor for Treasure magazine and got the usual stream of fan mail. The letters of one young man were such that when I needed another diver, I sent him a round-trip plane ticket. I didn't know it then, but I had brought aboard the first of my many protégés. His love of history and diving had been obvious in his letters, but his lack of experience in virtually everything was a surprise. I had to teach him everything. Although there wasn't much of a difference in our ages, I soon of thought of him like a son. He both idolized and feared me. He developed into one of the best researchers I know and is almost unparalleled in finding stuff in the water.


Such relationships are built on trust. The protégé trusts you to treat him fairly and steer him right, while the old hand—in this case, me—wants to share his knowledge, thus insuring it's not lost with his passing. You also learn to trust each other with your life and your future. I probably saved his life three or four times. Most of these tutor and protégé relationships developed into lifelong friendships. The bond between fellow undersea explorers, it's sort of like the "band of brothers" effect in wartime.

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In the first Uncharted game, our hero discovers Sir Francis Drake's coffin, and sets out on an adventure to find El Dorado. Sounds pretty far-fetched; but have you ever gone after anything so, I suppose, magical?
I have always been fascinated with Drake too, as part of my extended ancestry was the Drake family and I heard the stories of his exploits from a very early age. I also have friends who have searched for Drake's coffin.

I'm actually currently on the trail of a lost shipload of gold from Francisco Pizarro's conquest of Peru. And, I once sought a ship that had supposedly wrecked while carrying 40 tons of Inca gold. Another researcher had sold my company his research, claiming the wreck had taken place on El Dorado Shoal near Bimini, in the Bahamas. He said the shoal had been named for the ship's gold. The researcher was the same guy I had hitchhiked from Charleston to Miami to meet when I was a teenager, and had actually been my hero when I was child, but he was wrong.


That was a very costly mistake, but it taught me to only rely on my own research. We did not find the gold. I later uncovered the truth behind the naming of the shoal. It was named after the 19th century steamer El Dorado, which ran aground on the previously unmapped shoal. The El Dorado was refloated and towed away.

Can you explain what it's like when you're holding something a human hasn't even seen for a hundred years and more? When you find the treasure that you set out to discover?
It can be almost indescribable. It's a high like others can only imagine. First you feel anticipation and excitement; next, your heart and mind are simultaneously filled with a combination of wonder and satisfaction. It's like getting laid for the first time—you want to shout it to the world.

But, often, you can't. To tell the world often invites jealous, greedy interlopers and back-stabbers, many of who are low-paid bureaucrats and government officials. I have far more respect for the average treasure hunter, as many are equally as knowledgeable as the government historians and archaeologists, but they get out in the field and underwater, work hard, take enormous risks, and make their own discoveries. That is not to say either side is all good or bad, that wouldn't be accurate—it's just that I generally trust the treasure salvors more.

Nathan Drake's constantly running into other parties looking to steal the treasures for themselves, and I know you've experienced some, let's say, disputes. Can you tell me about the H.L. Hunley, the Civil War submarine that an expedition funded by the author Clive Cussler also claimed as its discovery?
Stolen valor doesn't credit anyone, and it's a shame when anyone tries to take credit for another's discovery. Clive Cussler has claimed credit for discovering a number of wrecks that I had previously found. For instance, in 1980 Cussler told the media that he had discovered the wreck of the United States iron clad Keokuk. In an admitted effort to garner free publicity for the then up-coming movie based on his novel Raise the Titanic, Cussler told eager reporters that his diver had "strode the decks," and that it was intact and could be raised.


That was absolutely false, as the Keokuk had been blown apart and heavily scrapped after the Civil War. I had been on it several times and had shared both the location and my research on it with him. I had also told him its condition, so he knew the truth. The following year, Cussler announced he had discovered the wrecks of the blockade runners Norseman and Stonewall Jackson, even though he knew that I had been in theNew York Times for their discovery over 12 years earlier. Cussler even had the names of those two wrecks mixed up, and based on the latitude and longitude he later published for one of the wrecks, I don't believe he ever even went to the right spot. On the other he was close, but "no cigar."

In my opinion, Cussler's claim to have discovered the Hunley in 1995 was his biggest outrage, as that wreck had already been placed on the National Register of Historic Places on the basis of my 1970 discovery. By law, a shipwreck can't be placed on the National Register unless its location has actually been found. The placement on that list by the government should have been sufficient proof that that I found it years before he made his claim. To me, Cussler's claim to have discovered the Hunley had no more merit than someone going to Washington DC and after seeing the Washington Monument, or any other thing on the National Register, claiming he had discovered it. People seem to forget that Cussler is a former advertising agency guy, and has publicly bragged about his past media stunts. For God's sake, the guy writes fiction for a living.


In fairness, he is not all fiction. The truth is, he has funded a number of expeditions, has some talented guys working for him, and through them he has made a number of real discoveries. It's the blend of fact and fiction that make both his novels and his lies so believable.

But it's hard when you are up against a man as rich and famous as Clive Cussler, especially one who makes up stuff for his living. But knowing that you are right and the facts are on your side helps immensely. In the Hunley case, my best evidence was the 1995 GPS location for the wreck, as reported by Cussler, fell under the center of the "X" that I had used to mark the Hunley's location on a map that I furnished the State and published in one of my books well before Cussler allegedly made his discovery.

I am also fortunate, in that Cussler wasn't the actual head of the 1995 Hunley expedition. Although funded in part by Cussler, that expedition was initiated and directed by underwater archaeologist Dr. Mark Newell, who has given sworn videotaped statements saying he, as in Newell, used my maps to direct the expedition, and Newell has publicly credited me with finding the Hunley in 1970.

A screenshot from 'Uncharted 4: A Thief's End'

In a way, does that kind of dispute go some way to showing how exciting this line of work is?
It's unfortunately part of the business, but I assure you that part is not exciting. That part is heart-rending as, when you love this as much as I do, you put your heart and soul into the work. You deserve and want credit for your own discoveries. It's big finds like the Hunley that earn you a place in the history books. Cussler's claims have already been heard all over the world. And, no matter how much you try, "you can't un-ring a bell."


There will always be people who will know only part of the story and will firmly but incorrectly believe that Cussler discovered the Hunley. He is rich and powerful, and he has gotten the official endorsement of various government officials. They seem to ignore that the government asked me, not Cussler, to donate the rights to the wreck of the Hunley to the State, and they had asked me only after the South Carolina Attorney General had researched it and concluded I had not only discovered it in 1970, but that I had become the owner through an admiralty action I had filed in federal court in 1980. I donated my rights to the State even though it was said to be worth millions of dollars and someone was trying to buy it for their private museum.

And there's real value, and status, in having your name attached to that find? Or, not your name?
Yes, there is value. It's free PR, and credibility to boot. I figure Cussler got tens of millions of dollars in free publicity. The value of widely reported news stories is exactly why Cussler uses his alleged shipwreck discoveries in his press releases and on the covers of his novels.

A drug lord privately told me that, although he wouldn't personally kill me, I would still die. I would be found floating dead in the water, and it would look like an accident.

What more can you tell me of those actual life-threatening situations you've been in?
On top of being shot and stabbed, I've survived dangerous times that I am still not willing to write about. But once, when I was working in Colombia, South America, an opposing group tried to have me arrested for treason. They execute you for that, but even though I was out of the country, when it was announced on Colombian television, I flew back to Colombia to face and fight the charges head on.

Their ploy didn't succeed, and the country's highest ranking admiral and others of equal or greater note came out in my defense. But then the drug lord leader of this group threatened to kill me. I knew he was serious, as he had once done time for murdering a government official. But, while smiling and talking to him politely, saying we were friends, I took hold of and squeezed his wrist almost to the point of breaking it, and managed to back him down and get him to apologize in front of about a dozen of his cohorts and followers.

But, the next day he privately told me that, although he had given his word and he wouldn't personally kill me, I would still die. I would be found floating dead in the water, and it would look like an accident. I may be fearless, but I am not an idiot. We had found one of the richest treasure wrecks ever discovered; giving it up was the price for my life. I gladly paid it. I left the same day.

Of them all, what's your favorite discovery so far?
My discovery of the Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley gets top billing because it was the first submarine in the entire history of the world to actually sink an enemy ship. Government officials have described it as the most important underwater archaeological discovery of the 20th century. However, my personal favorite discovery was finding the wreck of the Georgiana. Part of that is because I found it when I was still a teenager. The Georgiana was carrying a cargo worth over a million dollars at the time of her loss, but what I loved the most about that ship was her brief, but important, history.

The Georgiana was described in contemporary accounts as the "most powerful Confederate cruiser," yet she was sunk on her maiden voyage. Even more importantly, my research on the Georgiana eventually led to yet another news-making discovery, this one in literature. It allowed me to positively identify George Alfred Trenholm as the historical figure behind Margaret Mitchell's fictional sea captain Rhett Butler, from her novel Gone with the Wind. Trenholm had offices both in Charleston and Liverpool, and was head of the two most successful blockade running firms during the Civil War. He made the equivalent of billions of dollars, in today's money, from blockade running.

Like the fictional Rhett, when the War ended Trenholm was arrested for treason and accused of making off with the gold of the Confederate treasury. That would have been an almost impossible feat for any other blockade runner, but, by the end of the War, Trenholm was Treasurer of the Confederacy. He is at least 90 percent of the Rhett Butler character, the rest being fiction or made up of other real-life adventurers, including Mitchell's first husband.

So it's really history, not monetary rewards, which keeps you on the path of new discoveries?
You are right, monetary value is way down the list of how I rate the importance of discoveries. I have discovered literally hundreds of shipwrecks, and I find each and every one of them to be exciting. But it's the most satisfying when, using my research, I find something that solves a mystery, which has previously eluded others.

There's no chance of me giving this up. It's part of who and what I am. I wake up at night trying to solve these mysteries, and I'm anxious to get on with another one. In fact, I must cut this off now, as I have to get back to my research. It's been nice talking with you.

Uncharted 4: A Thief's End will be released for PlayStation 4 on May 10— find more information at the game's official website. Find Dr. E Lee Spence on Facebook and on his own website.

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