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Porcelain-fancier Bob Marx holds a 15th century Chinese platter recovered from a junk off Malacca
Pinned under collapsed walls, attacked by a mako shark, trapped in mini-submarines, shot at by insurgents and dynamited by divers, Bob Marx still says his greatest struggles have been against bureaucracy. Fifty years and 3000 treasure wrecks on, you can meet him at the London International Dive Show on 1/2 March. But first, Christopher Frazier tells his story


"PLUNDERER" IS THE LABEL some academics have attached to celebrated treasure-hunter Bob Marx. Yet this 65-year-old American has contributed tremendously to the field of underwater archaeology, and few shipwreck archaeologists can have spent more time under water, or poring over ancient manuscripts.
     Marx's passion for sunken ships began decades before there was any formal training in underwater archaeology. Characteristically, he has refused honorary doctorates offered by several universities but cares deeply about educating people about the preservation of underwater resources.
     In 1959 he co-founded the Advisory Council on Underwater Archaeology and served on its board for 35 years.
     He resigned only when it voted to ban presentations of archaeological reports on projects involving treasure-hunters.
     Marx has written more than 100 archaeological reports and given countless lectures in universities worldwide, also serving as a visiting professor at the University of California. He has been a consultant to UNESCO and the Organisation of the American States, and 22 nations have sought his help in drafting shipwreck legislation.
     Marx's CV reads like an Indiana Jones movie script. He has discovered more than 3000 shipwrecks in 62 countries. And until two heart attacks slowed him down "a bit" eight years ago, he explored the seas for about 300 days every year.

Like many of us, Bob Marx had childhood fantasies of finding Spanish galleons or lost civilisations. For most of us the daydreams fade but he says that from the age of five he knew he would spend his life pursuing adventure.
     He looks the part: tall and broad-shouldered, with a weathered, ruddy complexion and more than a bit of a belly. His fierce blue eyes gleam with a passion for maritime history and his craggy features soften when he talks of shipwrecks or sunken sites.
     He speaks with fervour and can mesmerise audiences, never failing to retrieve a fact or date from his photographic memory bank.
     Aboard his boats, Marx is a no-nonsense leader who inspires younger divers and crew by working harder and generally finding more treasure than any of them. He works his men from sunrise to sunset, allows no drugs or alcohol on board and deals severely with slackers, but most respect his skill and commitment and are grateful for his sharing of hard-won knowledge.

No one has ever called Marx a diplomat. Blunt, sometimes to the point of self-destruction, he calls it as he sees it and damn the consequences. His outspoken manner has burned a number of bridges.
     In 1972, for instance, he was working on a shipwreck in Bahamian waters on licence from the government. When the Prime Minister had some of his treasure seized, claiming that Marx had absconded with a huge amount of gold, Marx went on national TV to denounce him as a bribe-demanding "crook".
     Not surprisingly, Marx's licence was rescinded and he was named "persona non grata" in the Bahamas.
     Marx gets riled over accusations that amateur and commercial divers loot and destroy underwater archaeological sites. He points out that far more sites are destroyed by government-sponsored dredging and landfill operations.
     In the early '60s, Marx, working under the auspices of the Spanish Naval Museum, found 54 classical-period shipwrecks and 97 wreck sites of later dates in Cadiz Bay. When he went back in 1985 to resurvey the area, he found all but about a dozen destroyed by such operations.
     This led him to organise "Operation Save Cadiz". This did not endear him to the Spanish Government, which had previously honoured him as a Knight Commander in the Order of Isabela the Catholic, after he and a Spanish crew completed an authentic duplicate voyage of the Nina II, the smallest of Christopher Columbus' ships on his first voyage.
     Bob Marx contends that the concept of "finders-keepers" should never apply to underwater cultural heritage and that wrecks and other underwater finds belong to all mankind. He was considered a traitor by treasure-hunters and commercial salvors when, in 1985, he testified before the US Congress alongside Dr George Bass, the "Father of Underwater Archaeology" and Dr Robert Ballard of Titanic fame, on behalf of the Abandoned Shipwreck Act.
     This law curtailed the salvage activities of many treasure-hunters who, says Marx, sold them out to gain influence with governments worldwide. Some in the archaeological world claim that he fought on the side of the federal government to curry favour with the academic world, but those who know Marx realise that he doesn't seek to gain influence or approval from anyone.

In the 1940s the young Marx watched the John Wayne movie In the Wake of the Red Witch more than 20 times. Wayne discovers an intact Spanish galleon and, in a helmet diving rig, enters its hold, slays a giant octopus and finds countless chests of gleaming gold and jewels.
     At 10 Marx built a helmet from the top of a water-heater tank attached to a hand pump and used it to scour murky lake-bottoms around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
     He found anchors, fishing rods and tackle boxes, then one day came upon a gold pocket watch, a discovery that sparked his life-long quest for treasure.
     At 13 he ran away to Atlantic City, New Jersey. Taken in by a helmet-diver and his wife, he became an apprentice helmet-diver.
     His progress from hose-tender to diver was rapid, because his partner preferred to sit on deck drinking home-made brandy and singing Polish love songs!
     After a year Marx moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut to evade the juvenile authorities. There he was trained by a helmet-diver whose main work was recovering crashed Sikorski helicopters and the bodies of test pilots from Long Island Sound. Recovering bodies - more than 400 worldwide - is the one facet of Marx's diving career on which he doesn't like to dwell.

At 15 he crossed the USA to Hollywood and dived in clear water for the first time. In these pre-scuba days free-diving was the norm, and divers used long, heavy surfboards to get out past the waves. They slathered their bodies with axle grease for warmth, and speared fish and grabbed lobsters and abalone to eat and sell.
     Marx was pulling lobsters from under a California Gold Rush-era shipwreck near Santa Barbara when he found his first gold coins - more than 300. Soon after, he met Mel Fisher, who then had the only dive shop in the USA, and with others they founded the Los Angeles Neptunes, the country's first diving club.
     They found gold nuggets in rivers in northern California, but having heard that blue and white Chinese porcelain shards were washing ashore on beaches near San Francisco, Marx talked to fishermen and found a spot in Drake's Bay where cannon and anchors lay.
     He expected to find an intact Spanish galleon like John Wayne's Red Witch and, with no vestiges of a sunken ship, thought a vessel must have shed its cannon, anchors and some of its cargo. Several years later, now aware that old wooden ships tend not to stay intact, he identified the ship as the San Augustine, hit by a storm while sailing between Manila and Acapulco in 1595.
     As scuba was being introduced, Marx enlisted in the US Marine Corps and was soon diving all over the world. On a 6th Fleet cruise to the Mediterranean he spent three days scouring the sea floor of Cadiz Bay. It was "like an underwater museum, with Phoenician, Greek and Roman bronze and marble statues, as well as countless other types of treasure such as amphorae, and artefacts from Spanish and other European colonial-period ships," he says.
     Later he spent six months running a dive school for the Marine Corps on Vieques Island between Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, finding all sorts of fascinating shipwreck artefacts.

Sold on island life, Marx moved to Cozumel off Mexico when he finished his tour of duty in 1954. There were fewer than 400 residents on the island and Marx opened the first hotel there, which he says was the first dive resort in the world.
     For five years he provided not only diving with abundant marine life but introduced visitors to the thrill of combing reefs for old wrecks, including the Matancero, which had been sailing between Cadiz and Veracruz.
     Marx dubbed this the "five and dime" wreck because it yielded more than 60,000 brass crucifixes, 40,000 brass religious medallions, 18,000 pewter and brass buckles, pewterware, silverware, bottles, weapons, tools and even gold watches, jewellery and leaf.
     In late 1959 Marx moved to Seville in Spain to embark on a life-long project, studying primary documents in the Archives of the Indies for data on shipwrecks and the movements of the Spanish treasure fleets. At weekends and on holidays he worked recovering treasures and artefacts from wrecks.
     He turned everything he found over to the Cadiz Archaeological Museum and was disillusioned to learn, years later, that many of his recoveries had been sold off to museums around the world.

He then spent years working on shipwrecks all over the Caribbean and Central and South America.
     Marx had dreamt of exploring Port Royal, the "Wickedest City in the World", a pirate port that toppled into the harbour of Kingston, Jamaica in an earthquake and tidal wave in 1692. In 1964 he began a four-year excavation project for the Jamaican government.
     Aware of impending dredging operations to create a deepwater port, Marx and his team used hookah diving rigs in the black water, averaging 69 hours under water a week.
     Eventually Jamaica and Marx ran out of money and UNESCO, at Marx's urging, convinced the government to protect the site, which he calls the most important underwater archaeological site in the western hemisphere.
     During the excavation the team endured 24 major cave-ins when the sides of their massive excavation hole collapsed on top of them. "It sure makes you find religion when you're buried under tons of sediment and have no idea when or if you'll make it out!" says Marx.
     His excavation, employing standard archaeological methods of the time, revealed only 5% of the entire site. The project yielded over 2 million artefacts, affording a unique look at how pirates and the tavern-keepers, prostitutes and merchants they patronised lived.
     Of all the finds he made there, Marx says that the best was Jenifer, one of his volunteer divers. They later married and still live and dive happily together.
     In 1968 Marx moved to Melbourne on Florida's east coast, where he still lives. He took over the excavation operations of the Spanish treasure fleet shipwrecks lost in a 17l5 hurricane along the central Florida coast, and built the first of seven Treasure Museums at Port Canaveral, filling it with millions of dollars' worth of treasure. During the off-season he chased wrecks elsewhere in the world.

In 1972 he discovered under 10m of sand the Maravillas, the second-richest Spanish galleon lost in the New World.
     She went down in 1656 in the Bahamas with great loss of life and more than 10 times the treasure on the famous Atocha. Marx considered it a bad day if they didn't bring up at least $100,000 worth of gold and silver.
     Then, after four months, came his run-in with the Prime Minister.
     Controversy follows Marx like a plague. One of his most frustrating experiences took place in Brazil in 198l with his discovery of a 2nd century BC Roman shipwreck near Rio! The Spanish and Portuguese launched a media blitz, accusing Marx of salting the site with amphorae and other artefacts from shipwrecks in Italy.
     Brazil succumbed to pressure and cancelled Marx's excavation permit, then covered the site with 5m of harbour sediment. Marx lost his temper in a meeting with the head of the navy, who also happened to be Brazil's Vice-President, and was asked to leave the country.
     During the next 15 years he divided his time between the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the Far East. He has never cared much for gold and silver - Chinese porcelain is his addiction - and he found a dazzling variety of wrecks in Guam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

The Portuguese Flor do Mar, considered the richest ship ever lost, was Marx's most valuable discovery and one of the most perplexing. The flagship of Affonso de Albuquerque, she sank off Sumatra in Indonesia in 1511, laden with plunder from more than 20 countries, amassed during a 10-year orgy of looting southern Asia.
     She carried more than 80 tons of intricately worked gold objects and countless chests of precious stones and pearls. President Suharto, Indonesia's former dictator, spent $20 million in an unsuccessful search based on faulty research before turning to Marx. He found it in 1992 after three days, 100 miles from the original search area.
     Word leaked out immediately, and after five days the project was halted. Claims to the wreck were lodged in the International Court at The Hague by Portugal, Malaysia and other countries whose treasures had been plundered some 500 years ago. Ownership has yet to be established today.
     Bureaucratic hassles apart, Bob Marx's life has not been easy. Pinned under collapsed walls at Port Royal, attacked by a mako shark off Bimini, trapped in mini-submarines twice and shot at by leftist insurgents in the Philippines, where rival local divers four times set off underwater dynamite charges near him, Marx remains as devoted to exploring the past under water as he was 50 years ago.
     He may have no mobile phone, and has only just learned to e-mail, but he was a pioneer in deepwater shipwreck technology. His article The Future of Underwater Archaeology Lies in Deep Water was received sceptically 32 years ago. Marx began probing the depths using primitive submersibles and then ROVs with excellent results. Today more work is being conducted on wrecks in deep than in shallow water. With a twinkle in his eyes, Marx says: "See, I told you so!"

What is his next quest? "Discovering the Fountain of Youth," says Marx. "It's supposedly somewhere in my backyard - Florida - so I can drink the waters and become young again and start all over again."

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Marx examines artefacts recovered from a Spanish vessel wrecked off Florida in 1715


Jenifer Marx, beside the cannon, and her buddy are both holding gold Spanish doubloons


a 10cm-high gold and emerald crucifix from the 1656 Maravillas, lost in the Bahamas


A large gold emerald ring, a gold pendant set with various stones and gold doubloons from the flagship of the Spanish fleet sunk off Florida in 1715


Spanish gold ingots recovered with an ROV from an unknown Spanish wreck of 1622


Bob Marx with Spanish pieces of eight found on the 1715 flagship

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