Wednesday, May 22, 2024
HomeDEMA Show CoverageA Chat With Two ‘Pirate Hunters'

A Chat With Two ‘Pirate Hunters’

Ever dreamt of finding a sunken pirate ship while diving?

Well, keep dreaming because the odds of actually finding one are incredibly high, and for the ones that have been found, it’s been hard to verify that they are in fact pirate ships.

One diver who actually did find a pirate wreck is John Chatterton, a former commercial diver who famously identified a sunken German U-boat off the U.S. East Coast along with his dive partner Richie Kohler and then went on to star with Kohler on the History Channel’s “Deep Sea Detectives” series. Author Robert Kurson chronicled their search for the U-boat in his book “Shadow Divers.”

The story of Chatterton’s helping new dive partner John Mattera to find a sunken pirate ship named the Golden Fleece off the coast of the Dominican Republic is chronicled in Kurson’s new book, “Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession And The Search For A Legendary Pirate Ship.”

In his book, Kurson writes about Chatterton:

“Chatterton was in love with shipwrecks, but he bothered only with those that mattered to history and were difficult to work. Once he committed to a wreck, he never let go, no matter how deep or tangled the ship, and that was true even if it might cost him his life. More than anything, Chatterton believed in rare things; to him, ‘hard to find’ equaled beauty, and he was willing to search the world for beautiful things no one else could find.”

Chatterton was at the DEMA Show last week in Orlando, and along with fellow crew member Howard Ehrenberg — who served as the resident techie on the pirate ship hunt and worked with the side-scan sonars, magnetometers and sub-bottom profilers — was kind enough to sit down at the booth to chat about their adventures in the Caribbean searching for a sunken wreck that had been captained by the buccaneer Joseph Bannister. How did you get involved in the project?

John Chatterton: John Mattera’s another Northeast wreck diver — we traveled in the same circles and that kinda thing. When we went to the Wreck Diving Magazine event in the Dominican Republic which John Mattera hosted, it was an exhilarating experience, and we talked about finding wrecks. Most of my dive experience was big steel. Andrea Doria, stuff like that, World War 2 submarines, passenger liners, even World War 1 wrecks.

But the concept of really old wrecks, wrecks that are hundreds of years old — 16th, 17th, 18th century — was something new. And for me, the thing that I really love about not just diving but wreck diving is there are so many different facets, so many new alleys to explore, and this was something new, exciting and challenging.

Howard Ehrenberg: Yeah, we surveyed a lot.

JC: Well, we could have done surveying in a day if we had known where the wreck was to start; the whole purpose of the survey was to find the wreck. That’s really the challenge. If you’re diving to two, three hundred feet there are physical challenges, there are psychological challenges. When it comes to looking for really old wrecks, the vast majority of the challenges are really I think intellectual.

HE: I think for the mag[netometer] hit that was actually [the wreck], we’d [already] surveyed that area maybe three or four times, but the hit was so old that there was degradation of the magnetic field of that object, so it appeared really small. And it was almost like a “Oh let’s go look at this thing because we had looked at probably 50, 75 hits just in that area, we found every piece of garbage that was out there. (Laughs)

JC: Literally we dove well over a thousand hits, something like that. When you start out focused on what is entirely the wrong spot, what you do is, you start out and you thoroughly do that and you start to say, ‘OK that’s not it, now we need to expand this.’ Which direction do you go? This way? That way? Do you make the whole thing bigger? But in reality the answer is, ‘Oh no, we need to start over here.’

(In the book, Kurson describes Chatterton and Mattera’s quest to find a ship that — spoiler alert — wound up being in a completely different place than where the conventional wisdom said it should be.)

DB: How weird was it to realize that you were looking in the completely wrong place?

JC: Well you know, history is not always accurate, and you have to think about it: The wreck went down, in the late 1600s, and you’ve got this false historical narrative putting it at Cayo Levantado. Everybody got it wrong.

HE: Even in the book you see [expedition lead] Tracy Bowden [got it wrong too]. I think that Rob [Kurson] made it pretty clear but I think that he could have gone even further to express how much even after we found the wreck Tracy kept sending us back [to Cayo Levantado]. ‘Can you guys just survey over here?’

JC: You know what, it is human nature to say, it’s like telling your teacher that he’s wrong. ‘No I’m sorry professor, you’re entirely wrong. You’re going a giant Napoleon, the French, Pirate Island, Bannister Island, I don’t know, where do you think the wreck could be? Obviously it’s gotta be by Bannister Island, It’s gotta be by Pirate Island,’ But then you look at it and you go, the history that we know, if you start looking at it, this guy was a smart guy. Very intelligent, so he didn’t just have good leadership skills, the reason he was one step ahead of the Royal Navy and the authorities in Port Royal [Jamaica] was the only reason he hadn’t been hung already.

So this is an incredibly intelligent guy, and you’re like, ‘Why would an intelligent guy do something so stupid as to careen this boat on this island? Where would he go? Why would he go there?’ Just from Cayo Levantado you could look at it and say ‘I’d rather go over there.’ There’s a bunch of places that would be better. Why would he go here? And I think everyone wants to believe . . . in the history, this is it, I just have to figure it out.

HE: I think from the point that we started thinking about how Bannister was smarter than that, it was probably two months . . . from that point until we found the wreck, it was really fast.

JC: Every shipwreck is unique, every history is different; and if you’re not there first person, you’re stuck with the historical record, and it seems to me all the time if you’re relying on the historical record or if you’re looking for the wreck, things don’t mesh, they don’t line up, they make sense, for the shipwrecks that everything does make sense, well somebody’s already found it. So the shipwrecks that haven’t been found already are the ones where the history doesn’t quite match up with what you know. When you do find the wreck, all of a sudden all of the pieces start to come together. One of the problems for us is early on we weren’t sure that the British had come in and taken all of the cannons and anchors, all the things that from a magnetometer survey we’d be looking at big targets.

DB: What was more dangerous — dealing with some local driving his motorcycle in front of you while waving a gun, or doing the dives?

HE: I don’t think the diving was ever dangerous.

JC: Nothing in itself was dangerous, but to tell you the truth when you’re out there on a boat, we’re very comfortable here in the United States because we have the US Coast Guard and you can always get on the VHF radio. In the Dominican Republic, it was much more . . . the mariners at sea relied on one another, so that was always challenging.

HE: They knew what we were up to. I mean, people knew that the gringos out there are hunting for treasure that maybe in their mind belongs to them. We were out there obviously with the permission of the government but . . . like John said, we were out there with basically no support so if somebody really wanted to come after us it was certainly a real possibility. Some of the surveys we did were a good five miles offshore.

JC: The Dominican Republic, not unlike here, a lot of their crime is linked to the drug trade.

HE: Our boats were almost stolen more than once.

JC: They tried to steal our boats . . . and literally we were tying our boats [to the dock] with steel cables.

It’s not unlike the same kinda problems we have with smugglers and narcotraffickers in most countries but unfortunately for us, where we were working was an area that these guys were operating, right in a place where we found a couple wrecks [that were not the Golden Fleece].

Our big problem really was that the area where we were looking for the shipwreck is remote, and that’s an ideal area for the narcotraffickers to have their operations because they want to go to Puerto Rico. And so you’ve got a relatively remote area, and that unfortunately is where the shipwrecks were.

DB: Given the remoteness, how did you go about maintaining your dive gear?

HE: For the pirate wreck, we had a compressor that was awesome. It was like a real, four-stage compressor, so we could fill tanks pretty good. As for maintaining dive gear, we could do some regular servicing but if things were really bad we would bring them to the States, obviously.

JC: We also ran into problems where the answer was, ‘We gotta go back to the United States, and get the part, and then bring it back down.’

HE: There were times where the answer was somebody’s gotta get on a plane to fly to Miami. We’ve had people jump on a plane to Miami and come right back. There is no Home Depot [in the area where they were in the Dominican Republic], . . . the local dive shop? There is none.

JC: When we first started working there, in Samana, we would fly into Santo Domingo, somebody would meet us, and the drive to Samana was . . . almost like nine hours. Now, they were in the middle of constructing a brand-new road from North to South of the Dominican Republic, a miracle of engineering. But at the same time, it was still nine hours of rugged travel. The next week, maybe it was like eight and a half hours. There was just a little bit more pavement, a little bit less in the way of potholes but they had numerous fatalities on the road, just because people weren’t supposed to be using the road.

DB: One of the things Kurson writes is:

“A pirate ship was the single hardest and rarest thing a person could discover underwater. And while galleons had been largely forgotten, the voices of pirates never stopped calling, to the imaginations of children and anyone else who believed the world could be thrilling if one only dared step off the dock.”

Is that what it was like for you guys?

JC: Well, from a historical perspective if we’re gonna look at what kind of archival material is available, the Spanish have the archives in Seville, there are archives in Portugal, where is the pirate archive? Where did the pirates send all their paperwork? So largely the history of the pirates was not written by them; the history of the pirates was written by a third party that dealt with them in a confrontational manner.

HE: You walk into any souvenir store even here in Orlando, you’re not gonna see souvenirs of Spanish conquistadors, it’ll be souvenirs of pirates, because people are fascinated by them. Yes, the Whydah is a confirmed pirate ship and Blackbeard’s ship there’s a question mark about it and Captain Kidd’s ship there’s a question mark . . . and at the same time, even if all three of those are confirmed, so OK, there’s been four confirmed pirate ships now, from the Golden Age of piracy, so . . . there were so many pirate wrecks that happened and only four are possibly confirmed? That’s still amazing, so finding one is . . . much rarer.

JC: You look at the pirates, especially from an American perspective, these pirates were victims of shipwreck, they were escaped slaves, they were criminals, they were men — and women — who came together and all of a sudden they had this very diverse community but with a very well-organized set of laws. I think most people find that amazing. it was a true democracy.

HE: I think that’s the most fascinating thing about the pirates is the democracy. People are the most surprised to hear that the captain was an equal-share partner with the crew. When people ask us ‘How much treasure did you find?’ Well you know, pirates actually pretty much split it up right away, so it’s unlikely that there would have been a big treasure chest full of pirate booty.

JC: If you look at rock stars, they live fast, die young and the only difference [between them and pirates] is rock stars choose that [life]. Pirates had very little else in the way of options — if you were an escaped slave, what would you do, turn yourself in? ‘I’ve been looking around and hey that slave thing was a pretty good deal’ — No, of course not. The pirates were men who the powers-that-be were ready to administer very severe punishments already. So they were kinda like, ‘I got nothing to lose.’ And I think that whole concept, you see people in that situation, they’ve got nothing to lose, and instead of running out in the jungle and hiding out in the bush, they’re like, ‘You know what? I may go down but at least I go down on my own terms.’ I think that lifestyle people find absolute fascinating.

DB: Any anecdotes about the diving that didn’t make it into the book?

HE: We found a seahorse on the wreck. . . .

JC: Working on wrecks like this are working dives. They’re not recreational dives, they’re not fun dives, they’re working dives, so when it comes to working dives, it’s: ‘You’re only as good as your last dive.’ If Howard and I are diving and I’m down there working and I’m coming up and Howard’s going down, Howard has to have the expectation that whatever I tell him is going on, is [actually] going on. It’s not unlike the pirates. Everybody has to pull their weight, everybody has to do their fair share of the work. there’s very little in the way of drama, it’s real business, and you’re not just working to accomplish the end goal, but you’re working to pull your share of the load and that’s very important. That’s the thing that’s your daily priority: working as a team. And that’s why in spite of all the difficulties, all the aggravation, all the frustration, all of the things that make you wanna say, ‘Forget it, I’m just gonna go home,’ you believe that we, working together, we can do this, and if it was easy, somebody else would have done it.

DB: What were the conditions like when you were diving?

HE: We really mucked it up pretty good. A lot of the operations we were doing was digging; . . . there was a lot of monotony . . . and John’s familiar with that from his career days as a commercial diver. Me, having come from recreational diving, and made this transition to working diver because of John, it is different. And to recreational people out there — you know, he came from commercial diving so for him it’s like old hat, but it is totally different. You’re down there for two to three hours working.

JC: And the job’s not always the same. there were days when we were doing survey work, creating photomosaics, we were working with still cameras and video cameras, experimenting with different mosaic techniques, and for those days we want good visibility, but you go down and you start moving ballast stones sometimes you’re at the mercy of the tide. So you gotta do it on the incoming tide and not the outgoing tide, and so we gotta get up at 4 o’clock in the morning so we can get something done.

DB: So you’ve been in love with shipwrecks your entire life, right?

JC: Yeah, I love shipwrecks but it’s also shipwreck diving, it’s the challenge.

HE: [Chatterton] loves putting it together and figuring it out. He is really one of the most driven people that I know, and it’s about solving it. He wants to know the answer, and that’s the drive in the book where I basically tell him to eff off. It happened at least once, and nobody else would ever say anything like that to John —

JC: They say it but typically they really mean it, there’s so many different elements. There’s the historical research, there is the survey technology, there’s the diving end of things, and quite frankly what everybody else is already doing is not necessarily what’s gonna work. One size does not fit all, every shipwreck is different, and Howard and I just did a job up in Canada, where you take a little bit of this technology, you take a little bit of that technology . . . and you mix it up and you make it work for, ‘What do I have to do to make this happen?’ And that’s what we’re good at, is not so much getting the job done as figuring out how to get the job done.

In the book, Kurson writes about Chatterton and Mattera flip-flopping on whether to join Bowden in the search for the Golden Fleece, and finally deciding they would not take on the challenge and calling Bowden:

“Tracy, it’s John and John. We’re calling about the pirate ship and that captain, Bannister.”
“Have you guys made a decision?”
“We have.”
Numbers flashed on the arrivals screen. The flight to Santo Domingo started to board. Chatterton looked at Mattera. Mattera looked at Chatterton. Each waited for the other to speak.
“Tracy,” Mattera said, “that pirate ship of yours is about to get found.”

DB: How was that like — the no, no, no, yes?

JC: it was very much — that happened more than once I would say, the no no no yes thing. Some of this stuff starts getting real emotional. If I don’t have the answer, . . . I have an opinion, then. Hypothesis. Whatever. But you know what? Howard has a hypothesis. John Mattera has a hypothesis. Tracy has a hypothesis. And sometimes that can get real chaotic. At the end of the day, it’s like, do somehitng, even if it’s wrong. And it certainly didn’t just happen on the pirate dive.

HE: You hate when people stand there and do nothing,

JC: There’s two things: I hate it when people are doing nothing, and I hate it even more when people say ‘It can’t be done.’

HE: That’s the No, 1 thing that John hates. I have seen him more than once where people are like, ‘We tried, it can’t be done.’ And John is like, ‘Oh yeah?’ Grabs his gear, throws it on, jumps in the water, 20 minutes later comes out of the water, takes whatever it is, throws it on the deck, and he’s like, says some explicatives . . . and everybody’s surprised.

JC: Sometimes something can’t be done LIKE THIS. But if your mindset is, ‘It can’t be done,’ clearly you’re right, you can’t do it. OK well then you gotta get outta the way because if we need to get it done, you’re not the guy. And a lot of that comes from commercial diving. Commercial diving is very much ‘No cure, No pay.’ If you can’t get the job done, what are you gonna get paid for?

Many thanks to John Chatterton and Howard Ehrenberg for chatting with Robert Kurson’s “Pirate Hunters” is available now in bookstores and online via or

Robert Kurson's 'Pirate Hunters'
Robert Kurson’s ‘Pirate Hunters’
John Liang
John Liang
John Liang is the News Editor at He first got the diving bug while in High School in Cairo, Egypt, where he earned his PADI Open Water Diver certification in the Red Sea off the Sinai Peninsula. Since then, John has dived in a volcanic lake in Guatemala, among white-tipped sharks off the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica, and other places including a pool in Las Vegas helping to break the world record for the largest underwater press conference.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.