About Underwater Archeologist Dr. E. Lee Spence

Underwater Archaeologist, Shipwreck Historian, Author, Treasure Hunter, & Award-Winning Cartographer


Spurred on by childhood tales of pirates and adventure, Dr. E. Lee Spence, built his own diving gear and found his first shipwrecks the year he was twelve. That was 1959-1960. He has since found hundreds more wrecks and has worked on everything from Spanish galleons and pirate ships to Civil War blockade runners and twentieth century freighters. He has never forgotten the exciting dreams of his youth and is still making them come true. One of those dreams was eating off the dinner plates and drinking wine recovered from the shipwrecks. Another was finding gold and silver coins, cannons, pistols, muskets and swords. He has lived all of those dreams and lots more.

 Video for AUAS Awards Gala: ”Dr. E. Lee Spence” by Christian Chamberlain

 Video: “Dr. E. Lee Spence, Author/Treasure Hunter” by Tony Giambra


Brief Biography

Dr. Spence is an internationally known expert on shipwrecks and sunken treasures. He is one of five people in the world with a Doctor of Marine Histories (College of Marine Arts, 1972) and he has long been considered one of the founding fathers of marine archaeology.

His work has been funded by such institutions as the Savannah Ships of the Sea Museum, CRIL (the Caribbean Research Institute Ltd., Colombia, South America), the College of Charleston, the South Carolina Committee for the Humanities, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In the early 1990s he served as Chief of Underwater Archaeology for Providencia, a 40,000 square mile archipelago in the Western Caribbean. He has authored more than two dozen books, and has served as an editor for a number of nationally distributed magazines. He is also an award winning cartographer and has published a number of maps and charts dealing with shipwrecks and treasure.

Always an adventurer, Spence has traveled to a wide range of exotic places in the Far East, Europe, Central and South America. He has explored castles, palaces, shipwrecks, ancient ruins, secret tunnels, and subterranean and underwater caves. He has dived in the Great Lakes, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and the Caribbean.

He has been shot at, buried in cave-ins, tangled in fishing nets, pinned under wreckage, run out of air, lost inside a wreck, and bitten by fish while pursuing his quests for history and sunken treasure. Although he has been extraordinarily successful, like many others in his buisiness he has also been cheated out of his share on several wrecks.

His public feud with novelist Clive Cussler, who has tried to take discovery credit for a number of shipwrecks that Spence had already found (including but not limited too the blockade runners NorsemanStonewall Jackson, and Ruby; the United States warships KeokukWeehawken and Housatonic; and the Confederate submarine Hunley.), has caused many to wonder about Cussler’s apparent fascination with Spence. Some have theorized that Dr. Spence is the basis for the adventurous marine archaeologist Dirk Pitt in Cussler’s novels. The theory certainly has merit for many reasons.

Although Dr. Spence has discovered numerous historically significant shipwrecks, including the Civil War blockade runner Georgiana and the Confederate submarine Hunley, he considers his identification of Charleston born banking and shipping magnate George Trenholm as the “Real Rhett Butler” to have been his most interesting non-shipwreck discovery.

The State of South Carolina’s claim of ownership to the Civil War submarine Hunley was based on Spence’s 1970 discovery of that vessel and his subsequent gift of his salvage rights to it to the State. Spence’s gift of his rights was made in September of 1995 at the official request of the Attorney General of South Carolina and the South Carolina Hunley Commission.

In 2013, Dr. Spence announced the positive identification of two his discoveries at Cape Romain — the 1894 wreck of the SS Ozama and the 1881 wreck of the SS United States. He hopes that in 2014 he will be able to positively identify a third steamer (a side-wheeler) and a number of sailing vessels that he has already discovered in the same area. He already believes the side-wheeler is a particularly historic one, but without proof he isn’t ready to publicize it. He already has the legal ownership of all of these wrecks through an Admiralty claim he filed in United States District Court in 2012.

As an historian, Spence believes the biggest key to success on any expedition is the archival research that precedes it. Spence calls historical research “his drug of choice” and says, “In today’s world, time is the most expensive part of a salvage expedition. Man-hours spent in the archives can cut hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of time from the field phase of most projects.”

Link to Wikipedia online encyclopedia page on Dr. E. Lee Spence

 Wikipedia.com: On-line encyclopedia page on Spence

Link to NationMaster online encyclopedia page on Dr. E. Lee Spence

 NationMaster.com: On-line encyclopedia page on Spence

Link to Who

MarquisWhosWho.com: Marquis Who’s Who entry on Spence

Awards & Accolades

  • 2013- Received the 2012-2013 NOGI in Science
  • 2012- Elected to the Academy of Underwater Arts & Science
  • 2011- Nominated for 2011 NOGI (diving award)
  • 2010- Nominated for 2010 NOGI (diving award)
  • 2010- Undersea Explorers Award (Montres Charmex SA)
  • 2010- International Who’s Who of Diving (Diving Almanac)
  • 2009- Honorarium, National Geographic
  • 1998- Who’s Who in South & South West
  • 1997- Who’s Who in America
  • 1996- Who’s Who in Finance & Industry
  • 1992- Chief of Underwater Archaeology, Providencia
  • 1991- Mark of Excellence, Beneath the Sea
  • 1989- Certificate of Appreciation from Mensa
  • 1984- Inducted into Mensa (high IQ society)
  • 1984- Inducted into Intertel (top 1% IQ society)
  • 1983- Grant, South Carolina Committee for Humanities, shipwrecks study
  • 1983- Grant, National Endowment of the Humanities
  • 1983- Grant, Ships of the Sea Museum
  • 1976- Donald O. Bushman Cartography Award by University of South Carolina
  • 1971- Grant, Contemporary University, University of South Carolina
  • 1971- Honors Program University of South Carolina
  • 1966- Honors Program University of Miami
  • 1966- National Honors Scholarship University of Miami
  • 1966- Reserve Officer Training Corps 4-year scholarship
  • 1966- appointment to Merchant Marine Academy
  • 1966- alternate appointment to United States Naval Academy
  • 1966- alternate appointment to West Point, United States Military Academy
  • 1966- First Prize Science Fair, underwater inflatable house
  • 1965- National Science Foundation Scholarship
  • 1960- National Educational Development Test Certificate of Merit

Dr. Spence on Radio & TV...

 WIS TV (NBC): TV Interview re SS Ozama discovery

 BBC Radio: What Lies Beneath

 NightTalker Radio: Interview

 World Footprints: Reno River Festival

Dr. Spence in Social Media...

 Facebook Public Page: Dr. E. Lee Spence, Underwater Archaeologist, Shipwrecks, Sunken Treasure (over 45,500 Likes)

 LinkedIn: Dr. Spence’s Profile Page (his 2,900+ connections link him to over 21,000,000 professionals)

 Pinterest: Dr. Spence’s Boards (over 100 Pins and hundreds of Followers)

Dr. E. Lee Spence with his 22 carat gold, ruby and sapphire studded, pirate sword handle weighing over a kilo

 Twitter: Dr. Spence is “HunleyFinder” (with 5,000+ Followers)

Some of Dr. Spence's many Discoveries...

Dr. Spence was the original researcher behind the discoveries of two of the richest wrecks salvaged to date, i.e. the Gold Rush era steamer Central America, lost in 1854, and the Republic, sunk in 1865. The gold and silver coins and bullion recovered from them have been collectively valued at over a half billion dollars.

In 1970 Dr. Spence discovered the tiny Civil War submarine H.L. Hunley, which was the first submarine in the entire history of the world to actually sink an enemy ship in battle. He also located her victim, the USS Housatonic. In 1995, at the official request of Senator McConnell, Chairman of the Hunley Commission, Dr. Spence donated his rights to the Hunley to the State of South Carolina. The Hunley was raised in 2000 and is undergoing intensive study and conservation/preservation. The Hunley has been valued at over $20,000,000 and has been described by government officials as “the most important underwater archaeological discovery of the Twentieth Century.”

Dr. Spence has found a long list of Civil War blockade runners including the following steamers: GeorgianaMary Bowers; the Stonewall Jackson (ex-Leopard); the Norseman; the Constance Decimer; the Wave Queen; the Celt (also called the Colt or Sylph); the Presto; the Stono (ex-U.S. gunboat Isaac Smith); the Ruby; the Beatrice; the Minho; the Prince Albert; the Sumter and the Flora. Although he wasn’t the original finder, he has also worked on many other Civil War wrecks such as the Dare.

Other discoveries include the locations and/or identities of numerous wrecks of merchant vessels of all time periods and nationalities, including but not limited to: the British transport Glasgow Packet captured and burnt in 1776; the ship America wrecked in 1788; the brig Consolation, sunk in 1804; the schooner Diamond, sunk in 1816; the square rigged ship Delia Maria, sunk in 1854; the schooner Prince of Wales, sunk in 1861; the bark Canterbury, sunk in 1875; the bark Carrier Dove, sunk in 1876; the steamer City of Vera Cruz, sunk in 1880; steamer United States sunk in 1881; steamer Ozama lost in 1894; and the fuel oil tanker George MacDonald, sunk in 1960. (Several of the above vessel identifications are, of necessity, tentative identifications.)

Dr. Spence was also the first person to research, prove and reveal to the public that George Alfred Trenholm was the historical basis for the fictional blockade runner captain, Rhett Butler, in Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gone With The Wind. Trenholm’s fleet of fast steamers earned today’s equivalent of over one billion dollars running munitions, medicines, and merchandise through the Federal blockade. By the end of the Civil War, Trenholm was Treasurer of the Confederacy. The United States actually charged Trenholm with treason and claimed he had made off with and concealed hundreds of millions in Confederate assets. Trenholm died without revealing his secrets. Spence is currently trying to uncover them. Like many of his shipwreck discoveries, the announcement of that discovery made international news.

He has found as many as twenty-eight previously unknown shipwrecks in a single day. In that particular case he never formally announced their discovery because of fears they would be looted.

Another find he has made is the wreck of a side wheel steamer. If it is the remains of the historic vessel that he believes it to be, it will be yet another major discovery. He does not plan a formal announcement until he is satisfied he has correctly identified the wreck.

 SS Georgiana sunk in 1863: Most powerful Confederate cruiser, destroyed while trying to run the blockade.

 H.L. Hunley lost in 1864: First submarine in history to sink an enemy ship.

 SS United States wrecked in 1881: Finest ship built by one of America’s greatest shipyards

 SS Ozama sunk in 1894: Smuggling ship discovered off South Carolina

 steamer Central America: sunk with tons of California gold lost in 1854

 mail steamer Republic: lost in 1865 with $400,000 (face value) in gold

 Constance Decimer: Civil War blockade runner lost in 1864

 The real Rhett Butler: his identity discovered and secrets revealed

Dr. Spence's Involvement in Educational Institutions, Research, & Museums...

 Sea Research Society: Underwater Archaeologist and President

 International Diving Institute: Faculty and Vice President

 Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, Colombia: Jefe de Arqueología Subacuática (Chief of Underwater Archaeology)

 Historical Diving Society USA: Founding Benefactor

 Gulf Stream Drift Mission: diver on surface support vessel Griffin 

 College of Charleston: Primary investigator, study of shipwrecks of South Carolina & Georgia 1521-1865

 GreenPeace: shipwreck consultant

 South Carolina BiCentennial Commission: member Maritime Subcommittee

 Gazes Cardiac Research Institute: member board of directors 2000-2001

 American Military Museum: past member board of directors

 Greenwood Museum: Exhibit on Spence & his discoveries

 Climate Change: presidential guest & speaker at world conference in Cochabamba, Bolivia

Dr. Spence's Books...

 This section is still under construction with more photos, links and books to be added, please check back again soon 

paperback cover of 2nd printing of 1st edition of Treasures of the Confederate Coast by Dr. E. Lee Spence

 Author: Treasures of the Confederate Coast: The real Rhett Butler & Other Revelations 

 Author: Shipwrecks through War, Weather & Error, 1812-1816 

 Author: Shipwrecks, Pirates & Privateers: Sunken Treasures of the Upper South Carolina Coast, 1521-1865 

 AuthorSpence’s Guide to South Carolina 

 Author: Six volumes of Spence’s research & papers, published by Sea Research Society

 Author: Shipwrecks of South Carolina & Georgia 1521-1865

 AuthorA Look at South Carolina’s Underwater Heritage 

 AuthorShipwrecks of Charleston Harbor 

 AuthorShipwrecks of the Era of Colonization: South Carolina and Georgia 1521-1762 

 AuthorShipwrecks of the Era of Revolution: South Carolina and Georgia 1763-1783 

 AuthorShipwrecks and Shark Attacks: South Carolina and Georgia 1784-1821 

 AuthorShipwrecks of the Ante-Bellum South: South Carolina & Georgia, 1822-1860 

 AuthorShipwreck Encyclopedia of the Civil War: South Carolina and Georgia, 1861-1865  

 AuthorShipwreck Encyclopedia of the Civil War: North Carolina, 1861-1865  

 AuthorWreck of the Georgiana, Mystery Ship of the Confederacy  

 AuthorShipwrecks, Buccaneers & Corsairs of Hispaniola: Dominican Republic & Haiti: 1492-1860  

 AuthorShipwrecks of the old Bahama Islands: 1497-2000 

 ContributerPhase 1 Initial Survey, February 2011, Report for Fundacioón Punta Cana  

 ContributerPhase “A’: Interim Report for the project “Desccubrimiento Suroeste”

 ContributerDiving for Treasure 

Dr. Spence as a magazine editor...

 This section is still under construction with pictures of covers & links to be added, please check back again soon 

 Publisher/Senior EditorShipwrecks® 

 Publisher/Senior EditorWreck Diver 

 Underwater Archaeology EditorTreasure Diver: The Journal of Underwater Adventure 

 Contributing EditorTreasure Found  

 Contributing Editorxxxxxxxxx Magazine 

 Contributing Editorxxxxxxxxx Magazine 

 Contributing Editorxxxxxxxxx Magazine 

 Contributing Editorxxxxxxxxx Magazine 

Dr. Spence in Books by Others...

 This section is still under construction with more books to be added, please check back 

 by B.A. TomkinsTreasure: Man’s 25 Greatest Quests for El Dorado 

 by xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx 

 by Nancy RobertsGhosts from the Coast 

 By Alison HawesHidden Treasure 

Dr. Spence's Maps, Charts, & Certificates...

This section is under construction with more maps to be added, please check back soon

Dr. Spence was the 1976 winner of the Donald O. Bushman Cartography Award by University of South Carolina and has done both land and underwater surveys, creating numerous plats, maps, nautical charts, and topographical maps.

In addition to the ones pictured here, some of his other published maps and certificates include: A Map of the Wakulla and St. Marks Rivers in Florida, with Historic Sites and Shipwrecks, Tallahassee, 1965 Revolutionary War Battlefields of South Carolina, Sullivan’s Island, S.C., 1974 Shipwrecks of South Carolina, 1520-1776, Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, 1976 Artificial Reefs of South Carolina, Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, 1976 Shrimping in South Carolina, Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, 1976 Crabbing in South Carolina, Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, 1976 South Carolina Shipwrecks, Sea Research Society, Columbia, South Carolina, 1976 Archaic Sites of South Carolina by County, Sea Research Society, Columbia, South Carolina, 1976 Woodland Sites of South Carolina by County, Sea Research Society, Columbia, South Carolina, 1976 Archeological Sites of South Carolina by County, Sea Research Society, Columbia, South Carolina, 1976 Relics of the Civil War, (artifact certificate with map showing wrecks), Shipwreck Press, Charleston, South Carolina, 1985 Treasure From the Regina, (artifact certificate), Shipwreck Press, Charleston, South Carolina, 1987 Wreck of the City of Vera Cruz, (artifact certificate with chart of wreck’s location), Shipwreck Press, Charleston, South Carolina, 1990 Wreck of the William Lawrence, (artifact certificate with chart showing the wreck’s location), Shipwreck Press, Charleston, South Carolina, 1990

 Map: Shipwrecks of Charleston, South Carolina

 Map: Shipwrecks of New York & New Jersey

 Map: Civil War Shipwrecks

 Wreck Chart: Map showing cross section and location of Georgiana 

 Map: Shipwrecks of Hilton Head, South carolina

 Map/Certificate: map of Civil War shipwrecks of Charleston with relic pin attached 

Miscellaneous Honors, Awards and Recognition...

  This section is under construction, please check back  

 Academy of Underwater Arts & Sciences: Awarded the 2012-2013 NOGI for Science (underwater archaeology)

 Montres Charmex SA: Awarded 2010 Undersea Explorers Award (in part for discovery of the Hunley)

 National Geographic Society: shipwreck consultant on Sylvia Earle’s Ocean An Illustrated Atlas 

Dr. Spence in Newspapers & Magazines...

This section is still under construction with pictures of covers & links to be added, please check back again soon

Dr. Spence’s work and discoveries have been written about in over a thousand periodicals worldwide. U.S. News & World Report (magazine) credited Dr. Spence with the discovery of the Hunley, and he has been quoted or mentioned in thousands more. A very incomplete list includes the London SunPeople magazine; Oggi (Italian Equivalent of People magazine); Vi Menn (Norwegian magazine); La Stampa (Italian newspaper); Heutzu (German magazine); Life magazine; Canadian Diving News magazine; International Journal of Nautical Archeology (Great Britain); MacCleans (“Canada’s Weekly Newsmagazine”); Tresors de l’histoire (France); USA Today; the New York Times; the Los Angeles Times; the Miami Herald; the Tallahassee Democrat; the Atlanta Journal; the Atlanta Constitution; the Chicago Sun Times; the Detroit Free Press; the Charlotte ObserverTreasure (magazine); Skin Diver (magazine); Treasure Diver (magazine), etc.

 The (London) Sun: “£600M Gold in Them Thar Holds – Discovery of the steamer Central America”

 People Magazine: “Yo-Ho-Ho and a Bottle of Mumm! Veteran Diver Lee Spence Toasts the Treasure of the Lost Wreck Regina”

 The Epoch Times (international): Unburying Treasures: Cartographer Finds Hidden Treasure – How maps help save sunken ships

 CNBC: Diving Into Sunken-Treasure Investing

 Millionaire Magazine: “The Vault”

 Der Standard (Austria): Goldrausch in der Tiefsee (Gold Rush in the Deep Sea)

 Daily Mail (United Kingdom): “19th century ship that smuggled weapons and may be filled with gold is found off the coast of South Carolina”


 California Diving News (USA): “An Exclusive Interview With Dr. E. Lee Spence”


 Syracuse University: College of Arts & Sciences News (USA): “Deep Findings” (article about Dr. Cathryn Newton with quotes from Dr. Spence)


  1. botherhead124  April 4, 2014
  2. The Charleston Stone Fleets « Shipwrecks.com  January 13, 2014
  3. Cussler’s Discovery Claims « Shipwrecks.com  December 21, 2013
  4. afterwards calcaneus accursedly  December 7, 2013
  5. Underwater Archaeologist Dr. E. Lee Spence « Shipwrecks.com  September 21, 2013
  6. Wreck of the SS United States(built in 1865, lost in 1881) « Shipwrecks.com  August 10, 2013
  7. AnnaBeta  June 12, 2013
  8. free run  April 25, 2013
  9. Dr. E. Lee Spence, Underwater Archaeologist « Shipwrecks.com  April 14, 2013