David Mearns did not set out to be one of the world's great shipwreck hunters, but when his first expedition to find a vessel that sunk under suspicious circumstances ended is a high-profile murder trial and life sentences for the saboteurs, the rest became maritime history.
Mearns turned his 1986 degree from the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science in physical oceanography into a high profile career of finding lost ships - from a 16th Century caravel that was part of Vasco de Gama's fleet to some of the great maritime tragedies of World War II.
His finds have brought closure to war widows who never stopped grieving, sent guilty men to prison for life and helped the British government set new standards for ship construction, saving thousands of lives in the future.
With a career now as storied as some of the shipwrecks he seeks, Mearns returned to the College of Marine Science recently for a visit with faculty and students and lecture for the public at the Mahaffey Theater. He brought with him spellbinding tales of search across the world for lost ships and souls, and the astounding "Eureka!" moments when they become found.
"There are these terrific moments when you are successful," said Mearns, president of Bluewater Recoveries, Ltd. "You spend years working on something and it often comes down to your judgment; whether you are looking in the right place."
Mearns has found more than 20 shipwrecks and most recently led the expedition that found the wreckage of the AHS Centaur, an Australian hospital ship which was sunk by a Japanese submarine in May 1943 off the coast of Queensland. Of the 332 doctors, nurses and wounded soldiers and sailors aboard, 268 perished. The 2009 discovery ended a 66-year quest by families of those who were lost and Australian government officials.
Earlier this year, more than 300 people attended an at-sea memorial service at the site of the shipwreck to honor the doctors, nurses and service personnel killed in the attack. The group, which included one of just two remaining survivors of the attack, dropped floral wreaths and messages into the ocean waves, the closest they had been to their lost loved ones since the sinking.
The Centaur, though, is just the latest find to bring Mearns worldwide acclaim.
In 2001, Mearns lead teams to discover the wreckage of the HMS Hood, the British warship lost in the epic battle with the Nazi ship Bismarck . Mearns and his team - using extensive research, documents, eyewitness accounts and the most advanced technology available to pinpoint the ships' locations - overcame the challenges of locating the shipwreck in 3,000 feet of water in the Denmark Strait. His efforts to locate the ship is the basis for the PBS documentary Hunt for the Hood and the subject of the 2002 book, Hood and Bismarck."
Yet Mearns considers the 2008 discovery of the HMAS Sydney II shipwreck his greatest discovery. It took six years and an international effort to locate the warship, which had been the pride of Australia when it sank in 1941 after an encounter with a German vessel disguised as a merchant ship. The attack left a stunned nation grieving the 654 men lost and with unanswered questions which persisted for decades.
Mearns' documented the expedition in his second book, The Search for the Sydney, which immediately became a top seller in Australia.
His other finds include the Lucona, a cargo ship at the centre of a sensational European murder trial; the Derbyshire, which was lost with all hands and led to new rules covering survivability and structural requirements for bulk carriers; and the Esmeralda, a Portuguese Nau in the fleet of Vasco da Gama that is the oldest colonial wreck ever found.
Mearns said there was no direct pathway from the College of Marine Science to shipwreck hunting, but rather a happy accident of fate when he sought out what to do with his new master's degree in geological oceanography.
"I didn't want to work in oil and gas, and I didn't have what it takes to be an academic," Mearns explained. "So I did what a lot of geological oceanographers do, I went to work in the offshore industry."
Mearns started with a company in Maryland that had contracts with the U.S. government to do search and recovery missions for lost U.S. Navy property in the deep seas - lost aircraft, vessels and cruise missiles were among the items they recovered. The company was hired by the Austrian government investigating the suspicious sinking of a ship, the Lucona.
Mearns had at his disposal advanced sensors and imaging systems, and a penchant for meticulously studying every document collected in wrecks to search for clues in accounts of debris fields, records of where survivors and bodies were found and any small notation that might provide a hint of a ship's location that would augment his knowledge of the ocean floor.
"You have to be able to tell the difference between what is man-made and what is natural," he said. "To be a geologist is to know what the sea bed is supposed to look like, it helps to interpret the images of these features."
The Lucona had gone down in the Pacific Ocean in 1977, supposedly while carrying expensive uranium mining equipment. Authorities suspected fraud, but until Mearns found the wreck in 1991 they had no proof. It turned out the ship's owner, a wealthy businessman, and his partner had loaded the ship with scrap metal and a time bomb as part of his scheme. Six crew members perished in the sabotage; the evidence Mearns helped gathered sent the men to prison for life.
He followed that success with the hunt for the Derbyshire, a bulk oil carrier that disappeared during a typhoon south of Japan in 1980, and shocked the British public because the large vessel left no trace in its sinking. Mears said in his investigation, he came to learn that carriers like it sailing under the flags of developing nations had also sunk - costing thousands of lives - without much public outcry.
After the Derbyshire was found, images and information Mearns collected along with work done by other scientists led to the British government rewriting regulations on the design and building of bulk carriers.
"There's no question it has saved lives," Mearns said. "That has to be one of my most satisfying ones."
His attention soon turned to vessels lost in World War II, and he returned to Great Britain where he could be closer to maritime records in the British Archives. After his successful hunt for the Hood and an accompanying documentary, he was contracted by the Australian government to bring closure to its wartime tragedies.
"We had virtually all of Australia watching every move when we searched for Centaur and Sydney," he said.
Mearns still has one quest at the top of his list: to find legendary Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackelton's lost ship, the Endurance.
The vessel sank in 1915 after it became trapped in ice. Mearns said he has worked for years researching the expedition, applying his knowledge of currents and ocean features and getting permission from Shackelton's family to explore the iconic wreck. Now it has come down to securing financing for the venture; shipwreck hunts can easily cost in the millions of dollars and this venture will be even more challenging given the formidable nature of the Antarctic, he said.
"To me, it's the challenge of doing it, but the history is fantastic," he said. "Shackelton is one of the top figures of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration. People find his example in leadership enduring."