Sunday, September 03, 2006


Nautical archaeologist has vision for exploring the past


The Eagle
By Greg Okuhara
September 03, 2006

Jim Delgado remembers sitting in a dark, cold and cramped Russian submersible on his way to explore the Titanic shipwreck in 2000.

The 2 1/2-mile descent into the northern Atlantic Ocean took more than two hours, giving Delgado plenty of time to collect his thoughts before viewing the famous shipwreck.
But once the submersible's lights illuminated the massive hull, Delgado said he was in awe.

"Suddenly it's there," with orange, red and brown rust oozing down the side next to the enormous anchors, he said. "Nothing prepares you for what you see. The Titanic is a like a ghost town. It's like walking into an empty room with empty chairs, but you know what was said and done."

Delgado has countless stories about diving and exploring shipwrecks. And as a former host of the National Geographic show Sea Hunters, he tells those stories with vivid imagery.

Now he wants to share them on a local and national stage.

Delgado, 54, is the new executive director of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, a nonprofit organization headquartered at Texas A&M University. Delgado, interviewed on campus last week during his first visit since joining the INA, officially started in July and will work primarily from his offices in Vancouver, Canada.

The main component of his job will be outreach and fund-raising, so his storytelling and warm personality will come in handy.

"I had my eye on him for years," said George Bass, one of the institute's founders and head of the INA Foundation. "He's one of the best public speakers I've ever heard. His enthusiasm is infectious. I've already seen him talk to some of our current sponsors, and the connection is already there."

The institute, founded in 1973, is considered the world's leading scientific and education organization dedicated to understanding the historical interaction between humans and the sea.

Much of its current work centers around shipwrecks near Bodrum, Turkey, that date back 3,500 years to the Bronze Age.

Delgado's archaeology and anthropology experience includes exploring the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor, sunken ships at Bikini Atoll, and Mongolian ships from Kublai Kahn's fleet during a 1281 invasion of Japan.

He remembers the shipwrecks in detail. For instance, near one of those 13th century Mongolian ships was the skeleton of a soldier, probably 20 years old when he died.

In the murky waters of the Imari Gulf, Delgado described how he hovered above the remains and found a rice bowl with the name "Wang" in Chinese script.

"I remember thinking, 'Are you Wang?' Did you think it would come to this?' Perhaps he didn't have a clue because he was young, full of life and thought he was invincible, not realizing he'd end up face down in the mud for 700 years. As an anthropologist, I have a great deal of interest in the people stories.

"But as an archaeologist and scientist, I'm trained to be objective and thinking about what you can learn from this."

Bass said Delgado's extensive knowledge of maritime archaeology as well as contacts around the world make him a perfect fit as the organization's executive director.

Part of his outreach efforts, Delgado said, will include increasing the Institute of Nautical Archaeology's visibility.

As a former host of Sea Hunters, he said he has a good grasp on how to present the institution's stories.

"To be an archaeologist who also spent a fair amount of time in the media gives me a different perspective. I understand the need and importance to share these stories when people will ask, 'What is this? Why should I be interested?'"

Deep roots
Delgado's interest goes back to his childhood in California's Silicon Valley.

In the midst of the rapid development in the area, Delgado, then 14, happened across skeletons, arrowheads and stone tools that had been unearthed during mid-1960s construction.

He began collecting and recording his discovery and was soon joined by students from San Jose State University.

His interest turned to maritime archaeology in 1978, when he helped excavate the remains of Gold Rush-era ships and buildings near San Francisco's financial district.

"I just found it to be like magic," Delgado said. "Here's the ship just sitting there with all these well-preserved things in the mud. Shipwrecks are rare because they're somewhat like these encapsulated moments of time. For the most part, because they're not accessible to most people, they're not picked over."

Delgado spent the last 15 years working at the Vancouver Maritime Museum, where he served as its director.

Earlier in the year, Delgado wanted a career change and heard about the INA opening. He was pleased when Bass followed up.

Dream come true
"The INA and its nautical program are known throughout the world not only as pioneers in the field but as the people who do it best," Delgado said. "George Bass is considered the father of nautical archaeology. This is a dream come true to work here."

Besides working to increase the institute's visibility, Delgado plans to expand its operations with more projects.

That means finding additional funding from donors and sponsors, and Delgado expresses confidence that he can move the organization forward.

"I've been fortunate to be able to develop a large network of friends over the years. In a lot of ways I'll be an ambassador for INA."


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