Wrecked with Tony: The Wreck of the Whydah Gally

By Tony Sampson | Atlantic Boating Contributor

People are drawn to the ocean for many varied reasons, some for food, some for pleasure, some for work and some for adventure.

No matter what category you fit into, once the ocean has you in her grasp you are there for life. As a child, the stories of pirates, shipwrecks and treasure had me captivated as they do to this day, so when the opportunity came my way to dive into the mysterious Whydah Gally story, how could I refuse?

The Whydah Gally was an English ship built to carry the enslaved and was captured by the pirate Sam Bellamy and converted into his flag ship. After a short but very profitable career, Bellamy was returning to Cape Cod to meet up with his lover, Maria Hallet. Just a few hundred yards off the beaches of Cape Cod, in a violent North Easterly storm on the 26th of April 1717, the Whydah Gally wrecked and was torn to pieces in the rolling, roaring surf.

The force of the ship being pounded into the shallow sand bar released a vast fortune of gold, silver and treasure into the ocean. In 1984, diver and adventurer Barry Clifford realized his dreams when he uncovered the wreckage of the Whydah and started a recovery and restoration program that continues to this day. 

Arriving on the Cape in late May, I was hoping to get some good dives in with Barry and his team while the water was still clear and cold and before the mass of tourists and great white sharks returned to the local beaches. Everything was looking great, we had a clear weather window, great underwater cinematographer (Gavin Brennan) and Barry’s experienced team; with a team like this what could go wrong? 

We gathered on the wharf in Orleans, a quaint little Cape town around 7:00 am, checked and double-checked the dive gear and camera equipment, loaded food, water and supplies onboard the two centre-console dive boats and departed for what we hoped would be a good scouting adventure. Experienced captain and veteran Whydah team member Jeff Spiegel was skipper of our boat and Brandon Clifford, Barry’s son and the team field archaeologist, was skipper of the second boat. 

Once on the boat, we skimmed across the shallow waters of the inlet, twisting and turning as we snaked our way through the channels and sandbars to the open ocean.

Although it was a beautiful sunny day with little wind, the easterly swell we had hoped would be gone was still persisting. Brandon, Gavin and I prepped and donned our dive gear. Once the anchors were holding, we gently rolled backwards off the boats and into the cool green waters of the Cape. 

We had hoped for the best, but as we started to descend hand over hand down the anchor line vanishing into the blackness below, our hope ebbed away, pulled from us by the increasing movement of the swell. Once on the bottom in 30 feet of water, the visibility was almost zero. Brandon tied his reel line into the anchor line, and we headed up current in the hope visibility may improve away from the anchor. 

Approximately 50 feet away from the anchor we came across a piece of shipwreck timber protruding two feet out of the seabed and about four feet long. This lonely sentinel sent a shiver along my spine, and I could feel goose bumps rise on my arms as I thought of those 144 poor souls tossed into the sea, their last breaths just a gasp of bubbles as they were sucked beneath the tempest over 300 years ago.

The visibility was not improving at all. We had been on the bottom almost 40 minutes and decided to call the dive. Making our way slowly up the anchor line towards the surface, shafts of light penetrated through the water, illuminating the particulate in the water column as we hung at our safety stop.

Another shiver ran down my spine as I looked at my friends and realized that we resembled three giant pieces of bait bobbing and swaying in this shark infested water. 

Once back aboard the boats, Brandon, Gavin and I concluded that we had been the lucky ones in the water, some of the less experienced film crew had fallen victim to violent seasickness in the unforgiving pitching, heaving and rolling swell. Their initial fear of death by vomiting was only made worse by the fact that they realized they would not die, just wished they had as they were pounded for another hour on the way back to the dock.

Even though our first mission had not been a remarkable success, it had been a great adventure. Looking at the weather forecast for the coming week, it was decided that we would all return home and meet back on the Cape when conditions allowed for a larger exploration of the site. 

Two months later, on July 27, 2022, we were back on the wharf in Orleans, gear double checked and ready to go. There had been a light offshore breeze for three days and the sea was flat and calm. Barry had managed to get his mother vessel, Vast Explorer, over the wreck site with a deflector shield over the propellers to help shift accumulated sand on the site. Brandon and Jeff prepped the fast dive boats while Gavin and the film crew checked the cameras and sound equipment. I was excited to have my good friend and TV personality, Matty Blake, out with us this time to witness and document the adventure. Jeff powered up the twin 225 Verado’s and we are again skimming and weaving our way through the tricky channels and bars to the wreck site just off Marconi Beach and to where the Vast Explorer was gently bobbing over the wreck site with a three-anchor system to hold her in place during fanning or dusting operations. 

Once alongside the mother ship, we transferred our gear to the deck staging area as Barry emerged from the main cabin. Barry was extremely excited to be back in charge of this beautiful 66-foot by 20-foot vessel that was modified for the dive recovery years ago. After brief introductions, Barry gushed, “This is it.” The site where we recovered the guns, the site where Southack said the treasure would be beneath the guns.”

Barry was referring to Cyprian Southack, a British captain sent by the Governor of Massachusetts in 1717 to document, chart and recover artifacts from the wreck. He also was responsible for the burial of 112 men who had drowned and washed ashore. 

Barry and his team aboard Vast Explorer, some of whom had been with Barry for over 30 years, had used the deflector shield to gently dust sand away from an area under the props in preparation for our dive.

Southack’s map of his search for the Whydah wreck on the outer cape.

Barry briefed us on the bottom conditions, and we were shown real time images from the suspended underwater camera of the target area. Brandon, Gavin and I quietly set up our gear and checked our comms masks with Jeff who would be our top side contact whilst we were below. A drone operated by one of the crew had been spotting sharks prior to our arrival and would continue to keep us informed of any approaching us. This is their domain and a real concern this time of year on the Cape.

Although quiet, we were bursting with enthusiasm at what this dive in near perfect conditions could reveal. The gulls overhead squawked and screeched a chorus, playing in the thermals over the beach just a few hundred yards away as we slipped beneath the shimmering blue surface. The familiar female AI voice informed me my comms unit was on channel one as we did our final in-water checks before descending the marker line towards the Whydah’s final resting place. 

Today’s conditions were much better than our previous visit, visibility was about 10 feet horizontal with no current or swell and minor particulate in the water. As we approached the bottom in about 40 feet of water, it was as Barry had told us it would be, a light gravel/shingle bottom dotted with empty and broken shells that could be easily mistaken for coins by the small viewing camera.

The dusting had removed sand to uncover an area approximately 20 feet in diameter with sloping sides of sand reaching 10 feet above us. Both Brandon and I had underwater metal detectors with us and after a preliminary investigation of the area to identify any non-metallic artefacts, which there were none, we turned on our detectors and went to opposite sides of the hole to avoid any feedback between the units. 

I am so used to the silence of my detector when checking these sand hills that the sudden squawk of a solid “hit” jolted me from my Zen moment into reality. “Breathe Tony, breathe,” I told myself as I rechecked the area. Squawk, squawk, squawk my detector squealed from the other three quadrants, the hit seemed square or rectangular approximately 10 inches long and three inches wide, a gold or silver ingot perhaps? I called Brandon and the surface on comms, no reply. Damn glitchy wireless comms. There was nothing left to do but uncover my treasure find, slowly I moved my hand over the target area fanning the sand and silt then lifting my hand and fanning higher in the water column to form a current to pull the particulate away from the site.

Vast Explorer. Photo from www.facebook.com/expeditionwhydah/

Images of small jewellery boxes filled with pearls or emeralds flooded my mind. Fan and clear, fan and clear, I could hear my breathing quicken in my mask and my heart rate elevate as a defined shape appeared in the sand. Slowly, gingerly, I allowed my gloved hand to penetrate the sand and take hold of this history altering discovery, but something was wrong. The shape was too perfect, I could feel that it was thin and light, I had felt this shape many times before. My heart sank as the silt dispersed, and staring back at me from my palm was the familiar sight of a bright shiny cell phone. “Son of a bitch,” I cursed into my mask, how the hell do I dive a 1700s shipwreck and recover a cell phone? This sort of thing is becoming a habit for me, but no doubt somebody topside will be happy. 

I complete my circuit then return to the bottom of the hole to rejoin Brandon and Gavin. I show them my “treasure,” much to their amusement, but notice Brandon is acting cagey about something he has found, the suspense is killing me.

I was about to push for the “reveal” when the light from above suddenly dimmed, this was not something I was used to in Atlantic Canada. Within seconds our once clear target hole was filled with floating mung weed, (dark green and reddish weed that is not anchored to the bottom but floats freely in the current), it was like somebody had tipped a giant salad bowel over us and we were now swimming in lettuce filled water.

We all knew the dangers of being in the water on a Cape surf beach in low visibility conditions with seals all around and decided to call the dive; there was always tomorrow. Slowly we ascended from our salad bowl and broke the surface on the port, aft of Vast Explorer, the swim platform and ladder made boarding easy and again I could feel my excitement building as I knew I was about to see the artefact Brandon had recovered from its 300 year plus resting place. We hastily stripped out of our BCDs and tanks and placed them securely in the purpose-built rack, finally Brandon slowly peeled off his dive gloves and teasingly revealed a beautiful eight Reale Spanish coin. 

The atmosphere on deck was electric, camera crew scurried around to get the right shots, Matty Blake was bursting with excitement while I could not take my eyes off this piece of silver, so many questions flashed through my mind. Who was the last person to hold this coin? Whose lives had it touched? How many more lie below us just waiting to be found? “Wow,” is all I could say. As the excitement slowly calmed down and we packed our gear away ready for tomorrow’s mission, a sense of gratitude passed over me, gratitude that I had been allowed to partake in this childhood dream of adventure.

Photo credits to Matty Blake and Gavin Brennan. Adventure credits to Barry and Brandon Clifford and Prometheus Entertainment.

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