Underwater Archaeologist, Shipwreck Historian, Author, Treasure Hunter, & Award-Winning Cartographer
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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
Dr. Spence is an internationally known expert on shipwrecks and sunken treasures. He received one of the first five doctorates ever awarded for work in underwater archaeology (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 business 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 Norseman, Stonewall Jackson, and Ruby; the United States warships Keokuk, Weehawken 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. Although Cussler denies it 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 obtained 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.”
Wikipedia.com: On-line encyclopedia page on Spence
NationMaster.com: On-line encyclopedia page on Spence
MarquisWhosWho.com: Marquis Who’s Who entry on Spence
- 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