For the latest in my Interview with an Explorer series, it’s my pleasure to speak with Neil Dobson of Scotland, a marine archaeologist with more experience excavating deep-water shipwrecks than any other archaeologist in the world!
Neil has more than 40 years in the marine and offshore industry and comes from a long line of seafaring ancestors who can be traced back more than 250 years ago. His career spans being a Merchant Navy Deck Officer, a Watchstander/Stability Officer on various oil rigs, an offshore survival instructor/examiner and an HSE part III commercial diver, He graduated from St. Andrews University with a Master’s in Marine Archaeology and is one of a very small number of archaeologists worldwide who have successfully conducted archaeology in deep-water. Neil is also an International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) remotely operated vehicle (ROV) pilot.
A regular on the lecture and public speaking circuit, Neil has starred in global shows on Discovery, National Geographic, History Channel, PBS and BBC.
Tell us about your most recent project
One exciting and interesting shipwreck I have recently worked on is the paddle-steamer SS Central America, known as the “Ship Of Gold”. This 85-meter (280-foot) east coast built paddle steamer was launched in 1852 and operated by the United States Mail Steamship Company. She sailed the route between Panama and New York as part of the San Francisco – New York run during the California Gold Rush. Carrying a large shipment of gold ingots and personal gold in the form of coins, nuggets and dust she was lost in a hurricane on 12 September 1857 off the coast of South Carolina.
In 1988 the Columbus America Discovery Group acting as agents for Recovery Limited Partnership located the SS Central America in 2,200m of water. Using ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) technology the wreck was worked between 1988 and 1991 but only a small part of the gold cargo was recovered. Due to legal battles no further excavation of the wreck was conducted.
All this changed in 2014 when Recovery Limited Partnership awarded Odyssey Marine Exploration the contract to archaeologically investigate and excavate the wreck site and recover the remaining gold. Six months were spent working on the site of which I spent 5 months.
What inspired you to begin this project or expedition?
I am a commercial archaeologist specializing in deep-water wrecks. Having excavated a post US Civil War paddle-steamer, I could not say no when the opportunity to excavate a pre-US Civil War paddle-steamer presented itself. Also the client knew of my experience and knowledge of deep-water shipwreck investigations and excavations, I was the archaeologist for the job.
What did you learn from this experience?
Investigating and excavating the SS Central America was an opportunity for me to conduct the archaeology on a second paddle-steamer. This allowed me to make comparisons of the both paddle-steamers and explore the variations. Also, I gained further knowledge about gold in its natural and processed states. Most of all I got an insight of life during the California Gold Rush. I look forward to my next paddle-steamer who ever she is.
What would be your advice to someone that wants to take on their own larger-than-life challenge?
My advice; if you have a passion, go for it, follow your dreams and never give up.
Who is your favorite explorer, adventurer or scientist?
I have many favourites; Sir John Murray, early 20th century pioneering Scottish oceanographer and marine biologist. In marine archaeology, the Fort Augustus Abbey monk Odo Blundell who using hard hat diving gear was a pioneer of crannog archaeology in the early 20th century. My adventurer would be Admiral Thomas Cochrane.
At the moment I am at home looking for new projects and challenges. There are many shipwrecks still to be discovered.
Thanks so much to Neil Dobson for sharing a window into his amazing work! Check out the incredible video below about his work.