Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar

    Related Items
Fenwick Island: Shipwreck Plunder

By Cathleen McCarthy
Sunday, May 17, 1998; Page E08


    Shipwreck artifacts Artifacts from a Delaware shipwreck. (Discover Sea Museum)
If the idea of exploring the sunken Titanic makes you tingle, you may be surprised to learn that there are many shipwrecks off the beaches where Washingtonians vacation – close to a thousand from the 1700s and early 1800s have been located from New Jersey to North Carolina. Many more, never found and laden with precious cargo, wait to be plundered.

Shipwreck enthusiast-cum- entrepreneur Dale Clifton spends his summers diving for buried treasure along the East Coast, but he says half his ancient booty turns up along the Delaware beaches thanks to metal detectors. After the nor'easter in late February, he found 160 shipwreck coins and four religious medallions worth about $8,000. "I'm probably the only guy around here who prays for a hurricane," he quips. Want to dig up your own treasures? Clifton, who presides over a small shipwreck museum on Route 1 in Fenwick, will show you how to do it without leaving the beach. Just last year, he says, a child found an ancient silver coin near Fenwick. (Due to the tides, more shipwreck artifacts generally are washed up around Ocean City, Md., in the summer, while Lewes gets more in the winter.) And if you want a taste of what's out there, his museum has plenty of that: cannons, daggers, medical implements, bottles of rum, piles of coins, emeralds and gold jewelry dating from 1541 to 1860. Much of it came from shipwrecks along the Delmarva coast, including a ship's bell marked 1818, found between Bethany and Fenwick. What's not on display in the Smithsonian and other museums worldwide, you'll find in his DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum, a 2,000-square-foot space above Sea Shell City on Route 1 in Fenwick.

If you frequent the Delaware shore, you've probably passed the place a hundred times since it opened in 1993. Who would expect a museum over a seashell store? But this is no small-town dustbin. It's taken Clifton 20 years to accumulate, conserve and research these artifacts. Many of his finds have shed new light on Spanish colonial history.

Among the treasures on display is a 10-foot gold chain once destined for the queen of Spain. It was found on the Atocha, a Spanish galleon that went down off the Florida coast during a hurricane in 1622. Clifton was part of the crew that spent 16 years searching for the ship, found it in 1985 and recovered $538 million worth of gold, silver and emeralds from its hull.

An advocate of local history as well, Clifton runs tours of sites where land pirates once ran ships aground by lighting a fire in a barrel on a moonless night. Sea captains would mistake the fire for the Lewes lighthouse and turn left, thinking they were entering the Delaware Bay. He also arranges treasure hunts, burying chests filled with shipwreck coins in designated areas and supplying metal detectors. Two chests and a day of instructional play cost $225; more modest hunts are less.

If you're a certified diver and your heart is set on deep-sea treasure, dives to "modern" shipwrecks (1870 and later) are easily arranged. Tidewater Aquatics of Salisbury offers chartered trips from Ocean City to 20 nearby wrecks. Chartered trips with a dive master leave at 7 a.m., return at 4 p.m. and cost about $75. Experienced divers interested in pre-1860 wrecks are welcome to accompany Clifton on his underwater archaeological digs, as observers or participants. Expect little instruction and lots of digging in the silt. This summer, he and his partners plan to explore seven wrecks off the coast of New Jersey, Delaware and Virginia.

The DiscoverSea Shipwreck Museum (Route 1, Fenwick Island, 302/539-9366, is open year-round; hours vary according to season. For information on other shipwreck dives, contact Sunsports Dive Shop (73rd Street and Coastal Highway, Ocean City, 410/524-0744) or Tidewater Aquatics (Route 13, Salisbury, 1-800-637-2102).

Beyond the Pail Index

button Introduction
button Cape May, N.J./ Skin City
button Corolla, N.C./ Four-Wheel Drives
button Eastern Shore/ Active Athletics
button Fenwick Island, Del./ Shipwreck Dives
button Hatteras, N.C./ Fish Scene
button Lewes, Del./ Colonial Past
button Ocean City, Md./ Victoriana
button Outer Banks, N.C./ Sand Traps
button Rehoboth, Del./ Non-Outlet Shopping
button Spring Lake, N.J./ Jersey-er Than Thou
button Virginia Beach/ Back to Nature
button Wildwood, N.J./ Whale-Watching

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top
Navigation Bar
Navigation Bar