'Real Pirates' exhibit at Nauticus marine science museum in Norfolk

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010

When a teacher from Landstown Middle School in Virginia Beach invited me to join her sixth-graders on a scavenger hunt, how could I say no? I'd inadvertently crashed their class trip to a pirate exhibit on Norfolk's waterfront. So the least I could do was to jump in and help in the search for shackles, grenades and coins from what's supposedly the first fully authenticated pirate ship discovered in American waters.

We were touring "Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah From Slave Ship to Pirate Ship," an interactive exhibit that the Nauticus maritime science museum is displaying at the Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center next door. The center is normally where passengers on Caribbean cruises go through customs, but through April 4, it's paying homage to the Whydah, which sank off the coast of Cape Cod in April 1717, taking gold, jewels and other loot from more than 50 captured ships to the bottom of the ocean.

Norfolk's an obvious place for an exhibit such as this. It boasts not only the largest port in Virginia, but also a connection to a notorious recent case of piracy: The Alabama, a container ship owned by the Norfolk-based Maersk Line, was captured by Somali pirates in 2009. Its 28-foot lifeboat, from which the U.S. Navy rescued the ship's captain, Richard Phillips, is now the centerpiece of a companion exhibit focusing on modern-day pirates.

I'd expected the Whydah show to be the sort of frivolous fun you get in the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies. It was partly that, thanks to my sixth-grade companions. But the National Geographic exhibit surprised me: It was an intellectually stimulating account of the so-called Golden Age of Piracy, which ran from about 1690 to 1725.

The tour starts with a graphics-filled video that tells the tale of the Whydah, which was built in London in 1715 to transport slaves from the West Coast of Africa to the Caribbean. It was captured near the Bahamas in February 1717 by an Englishman named Sam Bellamy, who was apparently driven to piracy by his love for Maria Hallett, of Eastham, Mass. Hallett's father didn't think a poor sailor was a proper suitor for her, although I'm not sure that becoming a pirate made him a proper suitor, either. (Other pirates were former slaves who thrived on the unusually democratic ships -- a much more noble reason for turning to that sort of life.)

At the end of the video, the curtains parted to reveal the ship's bell, the first item that Cape Cod native and underwater explorer Barry Clifford found in 1984, after a years-long search for the Whydah. Like the students, I was amazed at how well preserved it was.

Clifford had heard the legend of the Whydah when he was a child. "It had always been in my mind, this pirate ship somewhere in your back yard," he said in an interview. When he finally found it, he said, "I don't remember breathing." (Among the people who helped him search: John F. Kennedy Jr., who lost his compass while diving for the Whydah. It was later found and is now part of the exhibit.)

We moved on to a reconstructed tavern -- taverns were popular pirate recruitment grounds -- where we hit a jackpot of Whydah artifacts. There was a kettle handle, a Queen Anne teapot and a wine spigot.

In the interactive section, the students took turns tying knots and hoisting a flag. But Darcy Finch, an inquisitive 11-year-old, was much more interested in the history of the Whydah. "How many people survived?" she asked me.

We soon found out that only two of the 146 people onboard made it out alive. Among the dead: John King, the Whydah's youngest pirate, who historians believe was about 11 years old -- the same age as the sixth-graders. After hearing that, Darcy and her classmates lingered at a case containing King's shoe and stocking.

Pirated out, I checked out the rest of the Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center, an 80,000-square-foot facility with sweeping views of the harbor built in 2007 to attract more cruise ships. One cool feature: an ocean liner exhibit, with posters of ships, menus and passenger lists from cruises dating to the early 20th century.

I opted for lunch at Bardo Edibles and Elixirs, one of several local restaurants that have added vegan dishes to their menus, in a nod to PETA's choice of Norfolk as its headquarters. Though I'm not a vegan, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the options: vegetable dumplings, chili garlic and truffle edamame hummus, fried eggplant and yaki-soba noodles.

I was also pleased with my scavenger hunt of Norfolk: It had unearthed all sorts of little treasures.

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