View from the Top: Dr. James Delgado, NOAA Director of Maritime Heritage
By Kathy A. Smith
Nearly a century ago, Lieutenant Ernest Larkin Jones was lost at sea. For decades, his surviving descendants, and the families of the other 55 seamen aboard the USS Conestoga had no idea what had happened to their loved ones. The ship that had left Mare Island, near San Francisco Bay on March 25, 1921 bound for Pearl Harbor, Hawaii had vanished without a trace.
Fast forward to March 23, 2016. NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) revealed to worldwide media that the wreck had finally been found – almost by accident – in the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary in California. The announcement was made after several family members of the captain and crew had been personally notified – a job Dr. James Delgado, NOAA’s director of maritime heritage and his colleagues, take very seriously.
Just a week earlier, arriving at the house of a woman whose grandfather had perished in the tragedy, Delgado prepared himself. He knew the meeting would be very emotional on both sides.
As he and his NOAA colleagues were greeted warmly by Diane Gollnitz, granddaughter of Lieutenant Jones, Delgado’s mind flashed back to the moment he knew for sure the elusive wreck’s identity – the encrusted barrel of a 3-inch/50-caliber single-fire naval rifle served as the proverbial “smoking gun” that solidified the sunken vessel’s place in U.S. naval history.
Jones was the commanding officer of the ill-fated civilian coal-barge-towing tug, turned World War I supply transportation and convoy escort. Delgado soon learned from Gollnitz how the loss of Jones had taken a huge emotional toll on her mother.
It was a special career-defining moment for Delgado, who, very early on, had ambitions to become an astronaut. But that all changed when he was introduced to archaeology and history at age 10.
Just four years later, growing up near the Santa Teresa foothills in San Jose, California (now famed as “Silicon Valley”), the 14-year-old with a love of the past talked his way onto a construction site where bulldozers were unearthing the burials and artifacts of the Ohlone people who had lived thousands of years ago in the area.
The outline of golden-stained ribs and the curve of a skull protruded, fossil-like, from the sidewall of a trench, he remembers, tantalizingly called him to his future path. He rescued more than 100 burials from destruction as well as many artifacts. The skeletal remains were reburied by the Ohlone descendants. Later, beginning in his junior high school years, he began working with local archaeologists, and at age 20, joined the National Park Service. There, he learned to scuba dive while working as an historian and archaeologist for the National Park Service in San Francisco.
Not surprisingly, his career has taken him all over the globe and to several hundred fathoms under the sea. He has been part of some of the world’s most famous shipwreck investigations, 150 and counting, that range from wrecks dating from 2,700 years ago to ships of a bygone steamer era like R.J. Walker, the U.S. Coastal Survey sidewheel steamship (NOAA’s predecessor organization) and Titanic.
Delgado actually made a trip to the unsinkable passenger liner in 2000 in a Mir submersible. Then in 2010 as chief scientist, he worked with a team of scientists responsible for documenting the wreck; together they created the first-ever 3-D map of her tangled and scattered remains. Preserving Titanic’s legacy for future generations is, like all the work he’s involved in, ensuring that the stories and the archaeological records live on.
In fact, as part of his personal decree to share his work with others, including scholars and the general public, Delgado has written more than 100 articles as well as 36 books and nearly 100 archaeological reports, in addition to giving numerous presentations worldwide. He recalls one of his fondest experiences was when he became the “talking head” and archaeologist on the popular National Geographic documentary TV series The Sea Hunters, which ran from 2001-2006, with a global audience of hundreds of millions.
Now, as he approaches the age of 60, Delgado has been steadily handing the baton to the next generation of historians, archaeologists and shipwreck explorers. The man who has spent more than 43 years immersed in the world of underwater archaeology says his work never gets old.
Always on the move, a late afternoon phone call found him in mid-transit on land, with a few minutes to generously give his views on the field he has poured his life’s work into.
When Delgado began diving into the depths looking for history under the sea, there was no Internet, no cell phones, and mapping a wreck underwater was done by hand, by setting up grids, using tapes and writing notes on plastic slates covered with Mylar.
How have things changed in the world of maritime archaeology?
Technology has changed so rapidly in the undersea world that I feel in some ways as if we have catapulted out of one century to another. Whether it’s positioning with GPS and better satellite range, or robotic technologies such as remotely operated vehicles and autonomous underwater vehicles, we have the ability to move more quickly and efficiently with less expense. Additionally, more people have embraced the concept of multidisciplinary missions. It’s more cost-effective and enables people to bring different elements to the table.
You say people no longer have to obtain a PhD to do the work you’re doing. Can you explain?
Citizen Science recognizes that you don’t need a PhD. There is so much that gets done by people who have the passion, who have understanding. I’ve worked on projects with people who didn’t learn anything from a book. They know about historic sailing ships because they sail or they’ve sailed on replica vessels or they’ve worked with a certain tool. On a dig, you can learn from the person who has the degree but from others as well. That’s the powerful part of it. It’s the realization that most of this stuff happens with people who know something and step forward to do it.
What current wreck investigations are you working on?
I’m working with Bob Ballard (naval officer, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island, and the scientist who led the team that found Titanic in 1985) to plan a deep-sea mission off the southern west coast of Canada, where we have an interest, as does the province of British Columbia, in a World War II wreck located in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Later, I’ll also be travelling to San Francisco where we’ll be doing deep-sea exploration, including what will be the first time we’ll be able to lay eyes on, and do a detailed map of, the wreck of USS Independence aircraft carrier that we did an initial sonar mapping of last year with The Boeing Company.
I’ve also recently been planning with the State of California’s State Parks team and others to better map and understand the maritime cultural landscape north of San Francisco. This area, known as “the Redwood Coast,” was part of California’s lumber industry after the gold rush in the mid-19th Century. In the absence of a highway and railroad, small steamers would tuck into tiny little coves and load lumber. The ships would anchor at the end of a tower lowered in the water, and they would slide that lumber off the top of the cliffs and down onto the decks of these ships to be loaded. Those dog-hole ports as they’re called, remain a powerful feature in the region. Other than archaeological traces, they are gone but not forgotten.
Of course, there are a number of things going on all the time with many of my colleagues around the world such as the team at Parks Canada and their ongoing work with HMS Erebus (one of two historic ships British explorer Sir John Franklin sailed to find the Norwest Passage in 1845; Franklin and his crew eventually died after the ships became ice-locked) to Hunley (an American Civil War submarine that made history as being the first sub to sink a war ship; her crew and the vessel disappeared shortly afterward). As the rust continues to be cleared away, the sub continues to be revealed as it once looked, telling us even more about this amazingly sophisticated early submarine lost in 1864.
How much more is there we don’t know about shipwrecks?
We still don’t have the very earliest ships. We still haven’t gained a really clear sense of a fair amount of this when you consider that so much of our history is intertwined with the seas, the lakes and the rivers. The Uluburun (late Bronze Age) shipwreck has evidence of 12 different cultures within it, from equatorial Africa to the Baltic, all connected over 3,300 years ago by maritime trade. I think that in time we will understand more of what’s in the oceans. I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. But I think the fact that discoveries are made, sometimes in people’s own backyards, is a reminder that not everything is done, that there are achievements yet to be made. And for young people in particular, that they can make a difference, that discovery can happen. I think as well, shipwrecks speak to powerful things in our history but they also connect to us personally.
Any final thoughts?
After meeting the granddaughter of a man who disappeared almost a century ago with the rest of his crew and seeing how that connected to her – it is the universality of our experience as human beings –that we suffer loss, that we prevail and we also experience triumph. I think shipwrecks speak to all of that. I think there will always be compelling stories to be told and people will continue to be curious. And as long as that happens and there is support for that, I think exploration will continue to happen. It’s not just lost treasures. It’s what it all speaks to in terms of mapping the human heart.