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Interview with Robert Marx.
|When Associate Editor of Skindiving in Australia magazine, I
interviewed Robert Marx on historic Beacon Island in the Abrolhos group,
off the Western Australin coast, in September 1977. We were there diving
th Dutch East Indiaman Batavia, as part of the First Southern Hemisphere
Maritime Archaeology Conference.
Robert F. Marx is an incredible man. Diver, sailor, navigator, archaeologist, author, historian, scholar - a modern day adventurer who lives for the past. He is a man who has made time stand still by achieving more in his forty-five years than twenty men of lesser dedication. But he was not one you could warm to. I am sure Bob would not be too distressed by this revelation, as he thought little of me when I pursuaded him, in public, to throw back a large live conch shell that he wished to retain. Good grief, the man had found sunken cities and recovered gold, and he wants to kill and take home a shell ?
Author of over twenty-five books and at least 200 scientific reports, he travels the world in search of history beneath the sea. He is best known for his authorative books on shipwrecks and the Spanish Fleet, and his enormous success as a treasure hunter who has found over 20 million dollars worth of gold and artifacts. He is known to the world for his brilliant excavation of the ancient city of Port Royale, and his voyages in the Nina 2, a replica of Columbus' caravel. His successes include the finding of the civil war ironclad, USS Monitor, off North Carolina; the discovery of a number of previously unknown Mayan temple sites in British Honduras, Cozunel and Mexico; the discovery of the Spanish Galleons Nuestra Senora de los Milagros, El Matancero, La Nicolasa, and Nuestra Senora de la Maravilla; an underwater survey of the submerged Roman cities of Carteya and Bolonia off Southern Spain; discovery of two ships of Christopher Columbus lost in Jamaica in 1504; participation in deepwater exploration aboard the Alcoa seaprobe; exploration of the ancient Phoenician seaports of Byblos, Tyre and Sidon in Lebanon during which Phoenician, Greek and Roman wrecks were discovered; and the research and exploration of hundreds of wrecks off Florida the Caribbean, Virgin Islands, Mexico, Panama, Turkey, Ascension Island and Israel.
In 1962 he navigated a replica of Columbus' Nina from Spain to San Salvador which resulted in world aclaim, and a knighthood from the Spanish Government. This was followed in 1964 by a voyage of a replica of a 10th century Goksta Viking Ship from Rijeka, Yugoslavia to Tunisia where he was shipwrecked in a storm. In 1969 he sailed a similar vessel over 4000 miles leaving Ireland on 19 April and finishing in Gibralta two months later. And I has the unmitigated gall to tell him to put a shell back into the sea!
I interview Bob (okay, Sir Robert), on Beacon Island in September 1977. I think it was before the International Shell Incident.
"Let's go right back to the beginning. When did you start diving?"
When I was 9 years old, I spent the summer up in Canada at a place called Lake Clair north of Detroit. I had only read books on geography and history - didn't know how to play ball and how to swim. I had a bad time. I had a cousin who was wounded in the Pacific in the Second World War. He was one of the first divers - a frogman in the US. Navy - he just could not believe I could not swim. So he kept grabbing and throwing me into the water and I kept drowning. His wife felt sorry for me and she went out and got me a pair of swimming goggles. I put those bloody things on - the water was so clear, I saw fish, and I forgot that I could not swim. I went ashore, found a broom, sawed part off, put a nail in the end, filed it down and made myself a spear. And for the rest of the summer, I chased fish all over the lake. I lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on a dirty river with a bunch of dirty lakes, but every moment, no matter how cold it was (apart from winter), I jumped in that water. And I started reading books.
One was by a guy named Harry Riesburg I Dived for Treasure. It was the biggest load of crap you ever read. Every one of his galleons were intact, skeletons at the wheel, fish nets caught in the rigging. But I really believed this bullshit, because everybody else did. There was no scuba then. All hard-hat stuff. When I was eleven, I ran away from home, got to Atlantic City, found a helmet diver there, a Polish guy, Joe Novak. He kept me and taught me how to dive, until I was thirteen. Somehow they (his family) located me there by a Christmas card I had sent, and the police were breathing down my neck, so I got out to California where I met up with a bunch of guys, who were called Goggle Divers.
They used to just wear goggles and go out with long spears ten, twelve feet long with four or five prongs. And some of those guys had been doing this since the 1930s. They had a club, and I used to go out with them and get abalone and lobsters. Then masks replaced the goggles - they were as hard as bloody rock - you had to sandpaper them to make the rubber fit your face. We made snorkels out of gardening hoses. About 1949, Cousteau came out, and California bought about five tanks: I bought of those five tanks for an astronomical sum of $500.00. It was small too - only 40 cf. We filled them at an Air base-an air compressor from an airport. We also made a bunch of tanks out of fire extinguishers and CO2 bottles, which I don't recommend. We formed a club, the first club in the U.S.A, called the L.A. Neptunes. There was another club called the San Diego Bottom Scratchers - they reckoned they were the first. This was in 1949. In those days we started to make our first dry suits as well.
The first guy to have the first dive shop in the USA, at Rodondo Beach, Los Angeles, was Mel Fisher. Mel and I started making under-water movies. Television was just getting started, and even shorts of 2-inch fish was big stuff. We got a whole bunch of 16 mm cameras surplus: the first cases were made out of pressure cookers. And we used to go out on all kinds of safaris. We went out to Hawaii and through the Caribbean. Anything we shot, we got on television. We made a lot of money in those days. Mel got involved with a guy called Bill Barada who still is doing movies after 30 years. We had a series on television called Kingdom of the Sea, and The High Road to Adventure. And twenty-six half hour programs called The Enchanting Sea. Mel got us going up these damn rivers looking for gold in California, and that's before anyone was doing it. Now there are ten thousand guys doing it every weekend.
At that time, I had a very good friend, who is still involved with me. His name is Dick Anderson from California. He actually found $70,000 worth of gold in one weekend diving the rivers. The most I ever found was $500 in two days. Mel claims to have found thousands but he would never produce it. That was my first taste of treasure.
We had all these phoney charts and books by this guy Reisberg, who actually lived out in California. And Reisberg had this bullshit about shipwrecks all over the coast of the Catalina Islands and Bishop's Rock and many other places, so we went out looking for wrecks all the time. We actually found some gold-rush-day ships. But they were all smashed to pieces and we didn't realise that if we could have moved some of the damm sheets of metal we could have found something.
In 1953, I enlisted in the Marine Corps as a Reconnaissance Surface Swimmer. Went to Korea, got all mashed up, shot up, in the water. When I came back they sent me to the east coast (USA), North Carolina, and I convinced the General there that the Marine Corps should have their own diving schools instead of always sending us to the Navy Diving Schools. They sent me to four different types of school in the Navy. Anyhow, I did the whole scene - hard hat diving, shallow water diving, scuba diving. And it was rough, because they didn't like a Marine going through a Navy School.
Anyway, I set up a (US Marines) dive school on Diagos Island, Puerto Rico. Diagos is between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. I had a diving school with tanks, scuba. Four others helped out, two with diving, one teaching judo and the other demolitions. During the next couple of years, I put 5500 guys through that school. I had a Colonel over me, but he was in North Carolina. Once a month I would see him. They had to give me a high rank to run the school, so I went from nothing to Staff Sergeant. There were many times when I had no students, so we would go a out and catch thousands, literally thousands of lobsters, freeze them, and once a month a plane would come down and fly then off to the US. We would sell them to restaurants, for about twenty cents a pouund which was unbelievable.
When I was teaching diving, I was my own boss, so I would just wander off to all the other islands, and we kept finding wreck after wreck after wreck - and didn't know they were wrecks. We would go on a reef and see a whole bunch of cannons, anchors and ballast stones. I didn't know they were ballast stones. This went on for a number years. One day, I was trying to pull a lobster from under a cannon, and as I pulled out three gold coins fell out. I also found silver buckles, brass buttons, a lot of copper pins. I still did not believe there was a wreck there - we thought they had thrown a chest over the side. The next day, I went over to the others of the reef where there were some more cannons and started to fan away the sand and found more silver coins. I really could not believe it. This was at Croix, American Virgin Islands.
I had an uncle who ran a hospital down in the Panama Canal, and he said to come down there. He had been finding a lot of wrecks. I took a month off, and found them on both sides of the isthmus. Most times I was just fanning the sand at the mouth of the Shagrace River. This river starts halfway across the isthmus, and was used to bring all the treasures up from Peru and Chile, to Panama City, and then transport them overland on mules halfway; then put it on flat bottomed barges and take them down river. Once down to the mouth of the river, they would put it on bigger boats and taken to Portabello to ship back to Spain. A lot of these barges, because the water was very shallow, they would overturn. This used to happen during the California Rold rush too.
So I found a hell of a lot of stuff there; and then I dug up old Panama City which was burnt to the ground by Morgan in 1671. I was digging with my bare hands, and only had snorkel equipment, no tanks. I was a confirmed Treasure Hunter by the end of the month, because I had found $30,000 worth - that was what I actually sold it for. It was probably worth twenty times more than that - I had no idea. I found hundreds and hundreds of gold and silver coins, on both sides of the isthmus. It was pretty good making $200 a month as a marine then making $30,000 in one month.
I was about twenty then. I really had the bug. After that, the islands in the Caribbean attracted me. I went back to those non-wrecks because now I knew they were wrecks. This was the same time in 1955 when Teddy Tucker had his big story in Life magazine about finding the treasure off Bermunda - the gold cross with the emeralds which sold for $100,000. Tucker was doing it the same way - a complete amateur. One day he was diving for fish pots, and just happened to see gold lying there, and that's how he started. He was using a ping pong paddle at that time, and hasn't changed much since. I met up with Teddy, and compared notes. I said let's go diving and meet an old in the Keys, Bart McKee - he had been treasure hunting from the 1930's. He was a hard hat diver, Tucker knew Bermuda, and I knew the Caribbean, and he had been treasure hunting for all those years and not knowing what a wreck was either. The three of us got together for three days; came out of the "meeting" with a whole lot of knowledge between us, convinced that all the books on treasure hunting at the time by the Harry Reisberg type were all complete bullshit. They never even went in the water. You know, every time they found a wreck they had to fight a 12 ft. octopus in the strongroom full of gold. And the wreck is always on a ledge, just like in 'The Deep', ready to drop off. Bullshit. Tucker went back to Bermuda, and a short time later I got out of the Marine Corps. I wanted to be an underwater archaeogist, but they did not exist at that time. But I was also interested in ruins on shore, so I went to the university at Los Angeles City College and U.L.C.A. California at night.
I had three weeks to go before graduation for a degree. One day I went down to Marineland and here was an old friend Doc Nelson, the guy I used to make the movies with, and Mel Fisher, as judges for a beauty contest - Miss Mermaid of the Pacific. The chick that won ended up being my wife. So while we were sitting there, they said, 'Hey, Marx, we are heading for Yucatan to go down and shoot some movies. Do you want come down. I said, "Man, I have only three more weeks of school to graduate'. They conned me. I never went back. I never got the degree. That's more than 20 years ago.
So we went to Yucatan, we shot movies for television, some documentaries also for Pan American Airlines Yucatan is a peninsula, in Mexico which faces Cuba. While we were down there, we did of lot of diving in the cenotes - the sinkholes. I dived down and found all kinds of valuable things - pots and money, turines, jade, some gold bells, bracelets. We started finding treasure by accident. The first time, we jumped in the water at Cozumel I jumped right on top of a galleon anchor, just like that. We found a lot of wrecks around there The others weren't interested, they were only interested in making movies. So when the filming was done, I just said I was staying. Nobody believed me. They kept saying the money is in movies. I said, "Stick your movies, I am staying. Go home, and send me some clothes and some books", which they did.
I stayed there four years. And during this time, I guess I made the big splash, because no-one had ever found anything before. I found a hell of a lot of things - the articles made Life magazine, National Geographic, Post, etc. I found the Matanceros which is still considered the most important Merchant ship ever found in the Western Hemisphere. It was just unbelievable. I had a contract with the Mexican Government for 50%, and I figured that during that four years I had brought up something like five million dollars. After four years, I finally said, how about a division? They confiscated it all, saying, well we decided to keep everything of archaeological value. So I got nothing. Absolutely nothing. So, I left.
To finance myself for the four years on Yucatan I started a hotel there, and had a dive shop. Took tourists out. Took them to ruins - ruins that I found. It was a small hotel, starting off with 12 people, and later on it got bigger and bigger and I finally got a manager so I could dive. I had three boats. Fishing boats, doing deep sea fishing. I left, very very disgusted. But all this time I was getting more and more interested in the historical and archaeology side. Nobody could answer my questions any time I found a wreck.
The only guy we had at that time, was Mendal Peterson at the Smithsonian Institution. The Mexican Government and National Geographic brought him down to see the goodies from the Matanceros - he decided it was an English wreck. He didn't know anything. Jesus, I found 55,000 brass crucifixes and 20,000 medallions. I said no English ship would carry these even as treasure. He was full of bullshit. So, I decided I should really learn to speak Spanish so I could read manuscripts down at the Spanish Archives. Then somebody warned me that it was all in old Spanish - that it was a completely different language. So I decided to have one last ditch -I took about eighteen months and compiled a list of a hundred choice wrecks, all from these 'phoney' books. I hit every reef, every rock in the Caribbean not once but three times during that 18 months. In doing that 18 months survey, I dived on several hundred wrecks. Only two of them were on the list and after doing some research, I discovered that about 95 of them were the imagination of the guys writing fiction.
It was time I asked a question. "Were they complete lies".
Absolutely; so what I discovered was that nobody had ever done any research.
So I went up to Canada, locked myself up in a cabin I rented out in the
middle of nowhere with a microfilm
Bob took a breath. My chance again. "Were you the first person to do any research on the Spanish wrecks."
Yes, the first person. Other people did stuff on missionaries, etc.
Anyhow, I spent 2-3 years in the Spanish Archives; also went to the Vatican,
and a lot of other Archives. I also worked on the
In 1963 I did a lot of work in the Caribbean and started finding a lot of treasure. The first wrecks though were a couple off Columbia. One was the San Jose. In 1964 I was involved in building a replica of a 10th century Viking ship. I was the captain. Tried to sail across the Atlantic - went 2400 miles and sank in a storm. In 1965, I did more work in the Caribean and a little bit in the Meditteranean from October 1965 to June 1968. I was the Underwater Archaeologist for Jamaica and excavated Port Royale, the sunken city which sank in 1692. At the end of that expedition I found two Columbus ships off the north coast of Jamaica.
Another breath, but I didn't get a word in.
In 1968, I moved back to Florida, and got involved with the Real Eight Company that had found some of the ships of the 1715 Fleet, and in the two and a half years that I worked with them, me and my team found over four million dollars worth of treasure. But it was a corporation, a public company and I ran it, but it did not make me rich. I got bonuses, but I did not put too much money in my pocket.
After that I got involved with the Alcoa Sea Probe project which is a kind of Glomar Explorer type of thing, trying to find shipwrecks in 5000-ft. of water. We were with the famous oceanographer Willard Bascomb. It was a bummer. It cost $11.5 million dollars to build and it didn't work. After that I decided to go and find the Maraville, the second richest ship that ever sank. That was in 1972, and Bascomb and I joined forces and went out and brought up $3 or $4 million dollars in the first year - and then the shit hit the fan. Spaniards, Peruvians, everybody including the Mafia put a claim on the treasure. And five years later it has not been resolved; in fact next month (October 1977) I fina!ly go to court over the damn mess of who owns it.
Betwen then and now I have worked mainly in Lebanon on Phoenician shipwrecks
- also in Israel. I have been working in Panama for the last two years
off and on. This year, I spent six months locating forty-four cannon wrecks
in Panama, on the Caribbean side. I have a lease there; all the
"How much value do you think you have brought up in your lifetime?"
A couple of years ago, the Internal Revenue people did an audit on me and they figured I had $15 million. Thats not my money. Two thirds of what I brought up I knew beforehand that I would not get a penny. I did it for the Governments. I am hired all the time. When I leave here, the French Government will hire me to go out to Guadalope Island in the Caribbbean where they have found two wrecks. I go there and tell them what the hell's there, tell them what is worth salvaging. AIl I can tell you is that I get more of a kick out of the history and archaeology because I decided years ago I never had treasure fever - that's where I had the jump on everybody.
I left that lead-in alone. But, as trite as it sounds, I had to ask, "Are you a rich man?"
No.I am richer than most people. I have been married five times, does that answer it? And I have six daughters. They cost me a lot of money. And every month it costs me for the the women I have doing continuous research in the Spanish Archives.
Bob mentioned his alimony payments and a few other details about past dalliances that are best left private; I moved on to his writings. "When did you start writing books?"
Right after the Nina - that's ten years ago (1967). "The Voyage of the Nina", flowed up by another one, called "Following Columbus". "Underwater Dig" came out 2 years ago. I had been teaching at the University of California and there was no suitable textbook.This is the nearest thing.
"How do you find so much time to write?"
I just sit down sometimes and write, 14 to 16 hours at a time. At a typewriter - I cannot dictate. Usually with jazz on - Gregorian Chants mostly, that is my favourite music. I usually work myself up, refuse to answer the phone, don't talk to anybody, and just write.
I thought it time to ruffle a few feathers. "Do you regard yourself as a treasure-hunter or as an archaeologist?"
No, no, definitely an archaeologist. I lave done more underwater archaeology - probably more than anybody. Three years at Port Royale, which is pure archaeology, mapping under the most adverse conditions. Absolute-pitch black - not an inch of visibility. I averaged 70 hours a week underwater for three years. I worked seven days a week. My divers worked 55 hours underwater per week. We were racing against the clock. One month at Port Royale - that would be close to 300 hours - is more than what 15% of the so-called underwater archaeologists would do in a lifetime. Jeremy Green is a noteable exception. Over half of the people who call themselves underwater archaeologists do not go underwater. No, I really don't give a damn about treasure. I find it exciting but just as exciting as getting laid.
"Where do you see yourself going in the next five years?" (Remember this was asked in 1977).
My main project is to make a replica of 2000 year old Phoenician Merchant ship and to sail from the Mediterranean to America and back to show how the Phoenicians did it.
I ended on a light note. "Tell me about the diving dogs of Portugal". Bob laughs.
Well, the crayfishermen in this spot off Portugal have to drop their pots in a busy fishing lane. To save their buoys from being cut to pieces, the submerged buoy is suspended about ten feet below th surface. To enable the fishermen to raise the pots after being located through sheer experience, man's best friend does a back flip over the gunnels, dives down to the buoy and tugs on a particular rope. This releases the buoy to the surface ready for Miguel to haul away.
I'm still not sure about all of this. I mean, how does the dog clear
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