By Annys Shin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 18, 2010; B1
Captain Ahab had Moby Dick. Bob Neyland's white whale is the Bonhomme Richard.
For decades, thrillseekers, archeologists and professional treasure hunters have searched for the wreckage of the USS Bonhomme Richard, a Continental Navy ship captained by John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War that sank on Sept. 25, 1779, off the coast of Yorkshire, England, in the choppy waters of the North Sea.
But the ship is legally the property of the U.S. Navy, which is responsible for preserving whatever may be left of it. A big part of that job falls to Neyland, chief archaeologist for the Navy's Underwater Archeology Branch, based at the Washington Navy Yard. The tiny unit is responsible for identifying and preserving sunken and historically important Navy vessels from colonial-era warships to World War II fighter planes.
Created in 1996, the branch has had as many as eight employees, but budget cuts have sliced that to four, including Neyland. After salaries, the branch operates on a budget of about $37,000. Neyland augments that by teaming up with other Navy offices, nonprofit groups, federal agencies and state governments.
With their help, he has been able to join three expeditions in the past four years to look for the Bonhomme Richard. He would like to be part of the crew that finds the ship, but he has a lot of competition. Treasure hunting has become mass infotainment, thanks to TV shows such as "Deep Sea Detectives" on the History Channel and "Treasure Quest" on the Discovery Channel. Shipwreck hunters include independent archaeologists, descendants of shipwreck victims and private salvagers seeking to cash in on what they find.
That burgeoning interest in sunken treasure has an upside: a steady stream of discoveries. In 1995, a nonprofit group backed by adventure novelist Clive Cussler found the wreck of the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate Civil War submarine, off the coast of Charleston, S.C. (An earlier explorer claims to have identified its resting place in 1970).
In 2000, the Navy helped raise the Hunley, which contained the remains of its eight-man crew. The sub, propelled with a hand crank, was designed to pick off Union ships blockading the port of Charleston. The Hunley sank in 1864. The raised vessel and its contents, now in South Carolina, are estimated to be worth as much as $40 million.
The downside to all the interest in shipwrecks is the threat it can pose to preservation. Neyland and his team devote a good chunk of their energy to persuading people to leave wrecks alone. Excavating warships, and the unused ordinance or potentially toxic substances that might be on board, can be dangerous for improperly trained explorers. Artifacts can easily be destroyed as they are removed from under layers of sediment.
"Sometimes that passion [for underwater archaeology] works for us," Neyland said. "Sometimes it makes work for us."
Profit-seeking treasure hunters, in particular, make some archaeologists nervous. The treasure hunters, however, say they are doing the public a favor. Greg Stemm, chief executive of Odyssey Marine Exploration, one of the best-known firms, said his company gives governments cultural artifacts for museums "without putting any taxpayer dollars at risk for the search, excavation and conservation."
Neyland's team has learned to make do with its limited resources. At the Navy Yard, its main work area is a series of small rooms cluttered with hand-me-down desks, file drawers and large metal storage cabinets that hold hundreds of artifacts in different stages of conservation.
During a recent tour, George Schwarz, 33, an archaeologist who runs the conservation lab, gingerly pulled out a toilet bowl recovered from the CSS Alabama, a Confederate ship that circled the globe raiding Union vessels in an effort to end the North's blockade of southern ports. The toilet was so well-preserved that every detail of the picturesque maritime scene that adorns the inside of the bowl is visible.
In an adjacent warehouse, archaeologist Alexis Catsambis, 28, donned padded gloves and lifted the lid of a giant stainless steel vat. Inside was an anchor encrusted with decades of mineral gunk, some of which was now slowly being removed by a rust-colored bath that extracts salt from the metal.
Once done, a machine will clean off the remaining mineral accretion. The process can take as little as a few weeks or as long as several years, Catsambis said.
Once an item has been conserved, Neyland's staff tries to find it a home, either in a museum or research facility. Of the 9,000 artifacts in the unit's care, about 7,000 are on loan to museums or universities.
Neyland and his staff handle requests for artifacts, make sure the Navy complies with historic preservation laws and monitor auction sites such as eBay for illegal sales of shipwreck loot. Those duties don't leave a lot of time to hunt for wrecks.
But Neyland goes out on the seas whenever he can. Last month, he hitched a ride on a Navy survey ship and joined colleagues from the Naval History and Heritage Command, the Ocean Technology Foundation, the Naval Oceanographic Service, the Naval Academy and the Naval Surface Warfare Center to look for the Bonhomme Richard. The group went at it for 10 days, 24 hours a day, using underwater robots and sonar to scour the ocean floor.
The Navy has competitors out there: Cussler's official-sounding nonprofit outfit, the National Underwater and Marine Agency, has also looked for the Revolutionary War vessel. The competition "is friendly," Neyland said, "but we do not share data."
A British group recently claimed to have found the Bonhomme Richard, but after studying the group's data and location, Neyland and his colleagues are dubious. "It is not consistent with where the ship would have sunk," he said.
There are few certainties at this stage of a search. Identifying a wreck often entails building a case on circumstantial evidence. With older wrecks, archaeologists are rarely lucky enough to stumble upon something as definitive as a cup engraved with the ship's name. Instead, they study the remains of the hull to determine whether it is the right age and shape and then examine artifacts to see whether they match what the crew would have carried.
The only thing Neyland can be certain of is that the Bonhomme Richard will turn up eventually.
"With modern technology," he said, "there is not any shipwreck that can't be found."