Work is ‘almost time travel’ to famed maritime archaeologist
JACKSONVILLE — In 42 years as a maritime archaeologist, James Delgado has dived to the wreck of the Titanic, descending into the dark ocean for hours inside a nickel-steel sphere. He’s explored ships sunk at Pearl Harbor and during atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. He helped identify the last ship that brought Africans to labor as slaves in America.
He’s dived in Japan on Kublai Khan’s invading Mongol fleet, in the Mediterranean on Venetian and Roman shipwrecks and in the Arctic on doomed exploration and whaling missions. He’s explored Alcatraz Island, Central American temples and an underground Soviet sub base in formerly Communist Albania.
On the Titanic, he saw passengers’ shoes, still tied in knots, on the sunken bow. On a Roman wreck, he saw the dishes and cups sailors used for their last meal.
That illustrates his guiding principle of archaeology: It’s not just about finding old things.
“Archaeology for me is about people, not things — things made by people, altered by people, kept by people, thrown away by people,” he said. “It’s all about people.”
Delgado, 62, lives with his wife, Ann, in an old house in Avondale. He moved to Jacksonville three years ago to become senior vice president of Search Inc., a leading cultural resource management research firm with an office in the city. He was recruited for the position after retiring from the government.
For him it was an easy decision.
“I’m not done yet,” he told them.
It seems unlikely he’ll ever be done. He’s been hooked on archaeology since his early teens, when he roamed the countryside of California’s Silicon Valley before it was known as that. He sought out the stories of old-timers, including settlers born just after the Civil War, and he went on cattle round-ups with ranchers and cowboys.
At 14, as workers built a new subdivision near his home in San Jose, he spotted human bones and tools, evidence that the site was an ancient burial ground for the area’s Native inhabitants.
He began mapping his finds on a blueprint of the site given to him by the construction supervisor and eventually fell in with a group of graduate students who took over much of the work.
“My mother suffered daily with a dirt-caked, dusty son coming home and promptly disappearing in the bathroom to gently wash the finds he carried with him,” he wrote in an email. “My parents worried but were comforted by the fact that their weird child was not on drugs and was studying hard at school.”
Even then he was already trying to painstakingly piece together the stories of long-gone people. That, he says, became his mission.
“Even when it’s archaeology of the more recent past, it always has surprises, and it’s an opportunity to physically connect to things you’ve read in history books — and sometimes an opportunity to add to history books.”
His resume could go for pages. In brief, he’s hosted TV shows for National Geographic, Discovery and other networks. He’s written numerous books, including “The Encyclopedia of Underwater and Maritime Archaeology,” an authoritative text studied by those aspiring to his field.
He was head of the Maritime Heritage Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and head of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology.
His expeditions to the Arctic led to him being elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London and then a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
“I take exploration, especially scientific exploration, seriously,” Delgado said. “It’s also fun, which I remind myself of when I’m in 27- to 29-degree water in a dry suit — that has an occasional tiny leak.”
Chuck Meide is a maritime archaeologist based out of the St. Augustine Lighthouse & Maritime Museum. He’s known Delgado for 20 years but first got to know him through the books he wrote on underwater archaeology.
“He literally wrote the encyclopedia, right?” Meide said. “I studied that in grad school.”
Delgado is a high-profile figure in his field, an accomplished public speaker and TV ambassador for maritime archaeology. But Meide said he’s driven by the same thing that motivates any archaeologist.
“There is an urge to discover,” Meide said. “To be the first to find something no one’s touched in centuries, to solve a mystery that’s befuddled others.”
Delgado’s latest big discovery took place in May in the Pacific Ocean — though the entire time he remained in the socially distanced office space of Search Inc. in Jacksonville with colleagues Michael Arbuthnot and Michael Brennan.
They were after the battleship USS Nevada, which, after barely surviving the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was repaired and went on to fight in several landmark battles in World War II. It then became a target in 1946 for Bikini Atoll atomic bomb testing.
Two years later the Navy sank it some 65 miles off Pearl Harbor, though it took more than four days of bombing to get the old ship to the bottom.
It was known to be in an area of 100 square miles, so Delgado, working for Search, called new partners Ocean Infinity, which had a quarantine ship ready to leave Hawaii. He talked to them about “targets of opportunity” to look for, including the Nevada.
So the ship went looking, while Delgado and colleagues watched on screens in Jacksonville.
“It was a question of sitting down, logging in and diving in as they dived,” he said. “Whether it’s conducted at an office desk and so deep in the ocean that the sun never reaches, it never gets old.”
When the wreck was found, Delgado recognized the hull of the ship, which was upside down, but couldn’t be completely sure it was the Nevada.
Then an underwater robot went into the debris field and found the stern. “The name was scraped off by an anchor chain, but right there was the (ship’s hull) number, 36,” Delgado said. “Yes!”
He said he wanted to find the Nevada as a sign of hope in these troubled times.
“We thought we could find it, and that it was important for people to remember, `Hey, we’ve been through tough times before,’” he said. “Nevada really came to represent resilience, stubbornness, getting back up and getting into it.”
In Jacksonville, Delgado has spoken on the area’s rich history, including the 16th-century clash between the Spanish and French over Fort Caroline.
“That’s world-significant in terms of events, people and sites,” he said. “It changed the history of the New World, not just Florida.”
Then there’s the wreck of the Maple Leaf, a Union troop transport sunk in 1864 by a Confederate mine in the St. Johns River in Mandarin. Delgado calls that wreck “a national treasure.”
For Delgado it will be yet another archaeological adventure in a lifetime of them.
“You’re looking at evidence of people, of human activity, with all of that. It’s been fascinating,” he said. “I feel at times, when you’re an archaeologist, that with a little luck, some travel, and a little bit of imagination, based on study, you can almost time-travel.”