In 1970, Dr. Spence was taking a break from his search for the Hunley, and enjoying a day of fishing when one of the party’s traps snag on something on the harbor bottom. He knew that there should not have been anything in the immediate area for a trap to snag on. Lee borrowed Joe Porcelli’s diving gear; he did not have his gear with him (they were fishing from Joe’s boat, the Miss Inah). After looking at the chart and their location, Lee felt it must be something from the Housatonic that snagged the trap. Now Lee’s curiosity was up, he had to see what the trap was caught on. Diving in cold water without a wetsuit or even a dry-suit can be life threatening, but Lee was going.
The visibility was poor, but soon Lee saw the trap caught on what looked like a limestone ledge. The bedrock limestone, in this location, should be 100 feet or more under the sand; it did not make sense. Then his many years of experience in the field of underwater archaeology paid-off, he realized he was looking at Civil War era encrusted iron. The currents had swept away enough of the sand from the wreck that Lee believed he was looking at the Hunley. There was nothing else this size from that time period it could be. He was so excited he ignored all the diving safety rules and raced all the way to the surface screaming, “I’ve found the Hunley!” Unfortunately, Lee did not have a camera that could take photographs in the poor visibility, nor did he bring up anything from the wreck (I will go into this more in next week’s article Spence VS, Cussler: Who found the Hunley?). I can understand Doctor Spence’s frustration. While on a pleasure snorkeling trip in Jamaica, I discovered a ballast pile that is probably an unknown wreck, but I too did not have a camera (I will write about this in the future).
The 1970’s were a pre-GPS era. So, Lee took sightings from various landmarks on shore using a magnetic compass. Then as the Miss Inah went back to the dock, he carefully recorded the boats heading, speed, and time on each course, so he could get back to the site again.
The following week two divers went out to confirm that Spence’s discovery was indeed the Hunley. In early 1971, Spence went with Mike Douglas and David McGeehee to photograph the wreck. But, unfortunately the ocean currents had again covered the wreck of the Hunley. Spence did report the find of the Hunley to the government and the university, which he considered the proper authorities. Unfortunately, Lee did not report the find to the press. Which, (apparently his opinion seems to consider) would have been a “misguided publicity stunt”. (See the quote from Dr. Spence’s article below.)
Dr. Spence did not report his discovery to the press until he needed the publicity to help him persuade the GSA (General Services Administration) to allow him to recover the Hunley. If the Hunley was property of the Confederate government then the GSA had authority over the wreck (this will also be discussed in next week’s article). As a matter of fact, in Dr. Spence’s article he said the following:
“Perhaps it should be noted that between November of 1970 and June of 1975, although in frequent contact with various government officials relative to my efforts to get permission to salvage the wreck, I kept my discovery entirely secret from the media. The fact that I kept it secret and applied in conformity with the government regulations, clearly shows that my claim was not some sort of misguided publicity stunt. I did not release anything to the media about my discovery until half a decade had passed and I realized that, without public interest and pressure, GSA would never issue the necessary permit.”
(I recommend reading his article, it can be found here: http://hunleyfinder.wordpress.com/article/the-discovery-of-the-hunley-by-dr-e-lee-9a3pk7ykcgda-2/ )
Dr. Spence did get the location of the Hunley entered into the National Register for Historic Places. Dr. Spence also filed a claim in federal district court claiming the wreck (the United States does not have an admiralty court and the federal courts handle admiralty cases). In 1995, Dr. Spence donated the Hunley to the state of South Carolina. (All four of these will be discussed in more detail in next week’s article.)
Doctor Edward Lee Spence is a pioneer in underwater archaeology. His accomplishments would fill a book by themselves, but I will list just a few:
Dr. Spence found his first five shipwrecks when he was 12 years old.
In 1991 & 1992, he served as the Chief of Underwater Archeology for San Andres y Providencia, a 40,000 square mile area in the western Caribbean owned by Colombia.
Dr Spence has worked on hundreds of wrecks from ancient times to modern, all over the world.
Dr. Spence is one of five people in the world with a Doctor of Marine Histories (College of Marine Arts, 1972).
Doctor Spence’s awards and honors are numerous, and from around the world.
He has survived numerous calamities while on sites, including: being shot at, running out of air underwater, pinned under wreckage, and caught in fish nets, to name just a few.
Lee is also a published editor and author of numerous non-fiction books, and has been a magazine editor and publisher of at least five different magazines.
If it were said that Dr. Spence was the role model used to create the Indian Jones character, it would not be surprising.
I would like to take a moment to thank Doctor Edward Lee Spence for all of his contributions to diving, underwater archaeology, and education.
On a personal note, Doctor Spence has been a pioneer, and casts a shadow over a field that has enthralled me since my childhood, and continues to do so today.
Job well done!
To learn more about Dr. Spence’s discovery of the H.L. Hunley we recommend Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The ‘Real Rhett Butler’ and Other Revelations by Edward Lee Spence.
Our Other Hunley Articles:
Spence VS Cussler: Who Found the Hunley
- The Submarine H. L. Hunley (joeccombs2nd.com)
- SC scientists trim years in conserving artifacts (miamiherald.com)
- South Carolina scientists trim years in conserving artifacts (wvgazette.com)
- SC scientists trim years in conserving artifacts (thestate.com)
- Top 25 Things to do in Charleston, South Carolina (laurasglobetrotting.com)