The NMI years were the most intensive years of learning in my life. It was like a graduate level program in maritime history, archaeology, preservation and interpretation. I was hardly ever in Washington. I spent nine months of each year in the field, visiting nearly every one some 330 historic ships in the United States, climbing up hundreds of lighthouse towers, visiting shipyards and naval facilities, and diving wrecks. I went to nearly every maritime museum and library in the country, and visited others abroad in Canada and Britain.
My time in the NPS also included an annual summer expedition with Lenihan and Murphy on a shipwreck project. Dives on the storm-ravaged square-rigger Avanti at Fort Jefferson, in Florida’s Dry Tortugas near Key West, as well as work at Pearl Harbor to study USS Arizona and USS Utah and to search for crashed Japanese aircraft and sunken midget submarines from the December 5, 1941 attack filled some summers. Two years of field work at Bikini, 9,000 miles from Washington in the heart of the Pacific, brought the team face to face with the results of nuclear testing as we dived into the graveyard of a fleet sunk by the atomic bomb. I spent my last field season in 1990 leading a team to Mexico to jointly study the remains of the 1846 US brig Somers, a project introduced to me and the NPS by my friend George Belcher of San Francisco, who had discovered the wreck.
During my 13 years in the National Park Service, I had remained active as an archaeologist outside of the National Park System thanks to friends like George who involved me in their projects. My very good friend, Allen Pastron, who runs a consulting firm of archaeologists named Archeo-Tec nearly single-handedly excavated much of downtown San Francisco’s great sites. Thanks to Allen, I had joined the crew digging up the ship William Gray in 1979, and later returned to the field with him to unearth a Gold Rush store that burned and collapsed into the bay in 1851, a shipyard where old Gold Rush ships were dismantled between 1854 and 1857, and a sailor’s boarding house that burned in the 1906 earthquake and fire. In 2001, we excavated another site just like Niantic. That ship, General Harrison, lay only a block away from Niantic’s grave. It was a wonderful opportunity to return to San Francisco and help unearth another ghostly relic from the days of the Gold Rush in the heart of the city. It was also, literally a return to my roots as a maritime archaeologist. It also served as the subject of a long-delayed Ph.D. dissertation at Simon Fraser University.
In early 1991, with every task Congress had set before the National Park Service as part of the challenge that formed the National Maritime Initiative completed, I left the NPS. The years of travel had left a yearning to find one place, one museum, ship, or shipwreck to focus on. The opportunity to return to the Pacific Coast and to live in Canada’s great port of Vancouver as director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum lured me out of government service.
For 15 years I worked with a great team of trustees, staff and volunteers at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. That included organizing a $3-million reenactment of the historic Northwest Passage and North America circumnavigating voyages of the museum’s centerpiece exhibit, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police schooner St. Roch. It also included the rescue and reconstruction of the historic oceanographic research submersible PX-15, Ben Franklin. Having been in a small museum gave me the freedom to be hands-on, not just in the research and the exhibits and programs, but with the projects. Serving as a member of the crew of the St. Roch II Voyage of Rediscovery meant visiting Arctic ports and connecting with people who remembered the original ship and its crew. Restoring Ben Franklin meant working with crane operators and a volunteer to reassemble the sub a piece at a time, bolting and hammering two storeys up, hoping to God that I didn’t fall.
The last six years in Vancouver also introduced me more completely to the world of documentary television thanks to John Davis, producer of the National Geographic International television series, The Sea Hunters. Working with John, co-host and famous novelist, raconteur and shipwreck hunter Clive Cussler, master diver Mike Fletcher, his diving son Warren, and a great crew behind the camera has brought new adventures, “in search of famous shipwrecks.” We traveled the world for several seasons, meeting colleagues, diving on amazing wrecks, and sharing their stories with millions of viewers around the world.
I left the Vancouver Maritime Museum in 2006, just as the Sea Hunters concluded its final season, because a new opportunity had come thanks to George Bass, the father of underwater archaeology, and several directors of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. That opportunity was the position of executive director of INA, a job that involved me in making a difference for INA in the areas of fundraising, development, marketing, project development and strategic planning. In 2008, the INA board selected me to become INA’s President and CEO, a job that I took to heart. It meant extensive travel, especially to the various countries where INA works, creating new relationships, reaffirming old ones, and implementing INA’s new strategic plan, which the board twice reviewed and unanimously passed in 2008 and 2009. I made some incredible friends, learned a great deal, raised more than $3 million for INA and Texas A&M University, and was able to make a difference as INA’s “agent of change.”
Jim with colleagues David Alberg, David Krop, Anna Gibson Holloway and Larrie Ferreiro at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC after presenting an all day symposium on the wreck of USS Monitor
In 2010, a new opportunity arrived with a chance to move to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries as Director of Maritime Heritage. The National Marine Sanctuaries are a precious part of America’s cultural and natural legacy, and joining the team in the Fall of 2010 made me part of a new family of collegial, focused public servants working with limited resources to make a difference in ocean conservation. I was proud and pleased to return to public service, and to continue to work on and in the water in this fourth decade of my career.
Now, in May 2017, as Senior Vice President of SEARCH, Inc., I am looking forward to many more inspirational working partnerships and interactions with colleagues and the public as I return to my roots. This position offers an opportunity to continue to do meaningful work in a variety of areas including but not limited to archaeology. That’s exciting. It will allow me to work in museums, with archives, collections, and heritage preservation projects as well as outreach and education.
Why do I love what I do? Because the greatest museum of all is the sea. The record of humanity’s achievements, its triumphs and tragedies, rest on the seabed. My drive to see and touch the past and share it with others that began for me over four decades ago continues, thanks to friends and colleagues who join me in the ongoing quest. What I’ve learned along the way from the dead ships, both the unknown and the famous, is that they do tell their tales. Sometimes their broken bones tell me who they are and how they died. Sometimes the story of their birth, their careers, and the personalities who sailed in them also come to light, resurrected from the darkness of the deep. It is for these reasons that I keep exploring.