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The Shipwreck Hunter

The Shipwreck Hunter: A Lifetime of Extraordinary Discoveries on the Ocean Floor

David L. Mearns
416 pp.
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In his memoir The Shipwreck Hunter, David Mearns invites readers to travel along on seven of the most exciting and meaningful investigations of his 21 (and counting) career major shipwreck finds.

In chapters bearing their names, Mearns’s thoughtful and detailed account chronologically traces each shipwreck, sharing vivid stories of every vessel from design to demise. The rich historical details and singular characters offer at least one chapter for everyone: from the murderous plot aboard MV Lucona to the World War II battles of HMAS Sydney; from the haunting rescue efforts that followed the sinking of TSS Athenia to the piratical actions aboard Esmeralda. Amid these tales, Mearns conveys equal zeal for the competitive bidding process that pushes deep-sea recovery technologies forward and the suspenseful technological glitches that can affect the ability to gather video footage of the wrecks.

Mearns makes the acoustic and robotic technologies used to detect and explore deep-sea wrecks accessible by describing the systems in use. Newcomers and experienced sonar operators alike will feel the frustration of willing the SM-30 sonar to work and the excitement of seeing the outer edge of a debris field, where items—once a part of a vessel and voyage—are today, harbingers of a shipwreck location. His sonar and remotely operated vehicle (ROV) demonstrations are interspersed with raw recollections of shipwreck survivors, introspective moments, and personal anecdotes.

A repeated theme in the text is the meticulous work necessary to refine high-probability search areas. Whether decoding secret notations in a German-English dictionary, determining how an oil slick would spread from a sinking vessel, or interviewing scores of witnesses to an offshore submarine attack, the confined bibliography of the memoir belies the depth and breadth of archival, navigational, weather, and witness-testimony research and data revealed in the narrative.

The book links each discovery to the broader importance that investigating shipwrecks has today: prosecuting murderers with MV Lucona; improving safety for seamen with MV Derbyshire; creating memorials for grieving survivors and families of HMS Hood, KTB Bismarck, HMAS Sydney, HSK Kormoran, and AHS Centaur; and the documentation of maritime history with Portuguese nau Esmeralda.


A diver investigates the remains of a World War II battleship in Palau, Micronesia.

Mearns closes with the prediction that history will remember the current era as “The Golden Age of Shipwreck Hunting,” a time when technology has risen to meet ambition and curiosity. Indeed, of the two key wrecks in Mearns’s wish list, included in the book’s final chapter, USS Indianapolis was relocated in August 2017, within months of The Shipwreck Hunter’s release in the United Kingdom and Australia, and, beginning in January 2019, the Weddell Sea Expedition will depart for Antarctica to seek Shackleton’s Endurance.

Excepting the first few pages of the introduction and afterword, which are playfully framed as advice for job seekers, the remainder of the book is equal parts a suspenseful story, a lesson in hard work, and a compelling argument for the modern importance of discovering and documenting shipwrecks.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Department of Marine Affairs, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI 02881, USA.