The Hard Way

By Daryl Carson

2000-10 The Hard Way 2000-10 The Hard Way A Profile of Robert F. Marx By Daryl Carson It’s impossible to summarize the resume of Robert F. Marx into something easily comprehended. A self-taught underwater archeologist and treasure hunter, he has spent more than five decades scouring the earth’s seas for shipwrecks. He has dived some 3,000 wrecks that date to the eighteenth century or earlier. The scope of his adventures can just begin to be appreciated with a review of personal disasters his body has survived. These include five plane crashes, nine shipwrecks, two shark attacks (one Mako, one Hammerhead) and five times being blown out of the water by explosives.

January through March of this year, Marx was diving nineteenth century wrecks off the Falkland Islands, one of which is the only existing ship from the California Gold Rush. Off Argentina and Chile he has been researching two Spanish wrecks from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These months on location are balanced with stints of research, writing and lecturing. Marx has authored or co-authored more than 40 books and 800 scientific reports and popular articles on shipwrecks and their histories.

Up until four years ago, when he first experienced heart trouble, Marx spent 250 days a year in the water serving as either an expedition consultant or working under the auspices of his own research and salvage firms. A typical dive site might be in the Bahamas, Malaysia or Mozambique.

Marx’s good friend Neal Watson describes him as a man “born out of his time.” Watson, who now operates several dive resorts in the Bahamas, has known Marx since the late 1960s. Among their many escapades, the duo set out in 1969 to demonstrate the feasibility of pre-Columbian voyages to the New World by reenacting a trans-Atlantic voyage in a replica tenth century Gokstad Viking ship.

“We were reported missing in the North Sea,” says Watson, “and decided we would rather be Phoenicians than Vikings. We sailed into Lisbon, Portugal and were promptly asked about our papers. We said, ‘No papers, we’re Phoenicians.’ We were standing on the dock, and they take Bob away in chains. Somehow he sorted out that we were Phoenicians and no threat to security, and they let us go. As it turns out, we failed to reach our destination, but ended up sailing farther than the original voyage would have been.

“I had sat and listened to stories and was truly mesmerized [by Marx],” says Watson. “I figured you only live once, so we did it. Bob is outrageous, but he’s incredibly brilliant. There’s a Jimmy Buffet song about a Pirate born 200 years too late. Bob is that. He lives in the wrong era.”

Marx was born December 8, 1936 in Pittsburgh. At the age of nine he began to devour the books of Harry Reisburg, an author of romanticized treasure tales.

“Reisburg was such a fraud,” says Marx. “All of his wrecks were intact and had treasure chests with an octopus on top and a skeleton guarding the whole thing. It was junk, but I fell for it.”

By the time he was 12 years old Marx ran away from home. He went to the New Jersey coast where he worked for a Polish helmet diver. At 15, Marx headed to California where he met Mel Fisher, who then owned a dive shop in Redondo Beach. The pair became interested in underwater photography and then in making movies. They sold footage for use on TV.

During this time, Marx read about a wreck farther north in Drakes Bay and dove it with some Portuguese fishermen. It turned out to be the Manila Galleon San Agustin, lost in 1595. They found anchors, ballast, pistols, swords and broken shards. Marx was starting to get gold fever.

During this time, Marx explored several wrecks off the California coast. At one site he found 300 buttons stamped “Levi.”

“I assumed brass would shine,” says Marx, “and I thought these were buttons. I started giving them away to friends. When I had about 10 left, I gave a couple to a girl I was dating. Her father was a coin expert and informed me that my ‘brass buttons’ were actually some of the rarest currency around. They were gold coins produced by Levi of Levi blue jeans fame. He made his fortune during the gold rush prior to the establishment of the San Francisco mint, so he produced his own money. When you start out new, you learn the hard way. Each coin I’d given away was worth between $10,000 and $15,000 a piece.”

In 1953, Marx joined the Marine Corps and ultimately became director of the USMC Diving School in Vieques, Puerto Rico. But, on a six-month cruise through the Mediterranean, Marx had an experience that would change his life.

“A cable got caught in the props of our carrier,” says Marx. He dove beneath the ship to sort out the tangled mess. “I looked down and below me on the bottom was a stack of bronze cannons. That experience really started my treasure hunting.” On this cruise Marx eventually discovered wrecks off Spain, France, Libya, Italy, Greece and Egypt.

Three years after enlisting, Marx took his leave of the Marine Corps and went back to California. He attended UCLA, majoring in anthropology and archeology, and completed 90 undergraduate credit hours. Back in California he again partnered with Mel Fisher. Some of Marx’s underwater film footage had been used in the Oscar-winning documentary The Sea Around Us, and he received a financial windfall. Flush with cash, he agreed to go with Fisher to shoot movies off Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. His month-long stay dragged into four and a half years.

“I started the first hotel in Cozumel. There were 12 rooms, and I charged eight bucks a day for meals and diving. Booze was on the honor system for 25 cents a drink. I ran the resort and found wrecks.”

Launching out from Cozumel, Marx began to search for wrecks all over the Caribbean. Everywhere he went he sought the help of local fishermen who might know the location of “guns” (cannons) and “river rocks” (ballast stones). His efforts paid off, but while he found “a hell of a lot of treasure” he was continually frustrated by efforts to identify the wrecks he was finding. He decided to do the research himself, and his pursuits took him to Spain for two and a half years where he poured over ancient documents, many of them written in old Spanish, a phonetically written combination of Basque, French, Italian, Portuguese, Latin and other languages. The research spawned much of Marx’s academic and popular writings.

Marx voluminous accomplishments include finding the Civil War ironclad Monitor. He directed the archeological excavation of the sunken city of Port Royal in Jamaica from 1965 through 1968. In 1973 and 1974, at the invitation of the Lebanese Department of Antiquities, Marx explored ancient Phoenician seaports and discovered shipwrecks dating from the fifth century B.C. up to the sixth century A.D. They included two Greek, two Roman and one Byzantine wreck. In 1987 and 1988 Marx discovered two Manila galleons off the coast of Guam, the Nuestra Senora del Pilar, lost in 1690, and the Nuestra Senora del Buen Viaje, lost in 1754.

Each of these finds is wedged tightly between scores of other discoveries, other treasures found and more blank spaces filled in the annals of the world’s maritime history.

Does all of this make Marx a hero? It does, at least to those who sit in their office cubicles and dream of a life only half as daring, but it has also made him a villain in the eyes of many academics. His work, both in locating and researching ships, cannot be denied, and his singular effort may never be duplicated. However, that has not prevented criticism for alleged lack of detail in handling artifacts and his willingness to sell treasure. Marx answers these charges by citing professional jealousy. He’s doing it, they’re not. Has he sold treasure? Sure, but not precious one-of-a-kind artifacts, only duplicates. Does he record every detail of sunken wrecks? It’s a pointless endeavor on shallow, scattered wrecks, although valuable on deeper sites, he says.

Dr. Jim Miller is the chief of archeological research for the Florida Division of Historical Resources. He has gotten to know Marx over the past two decades, as the salvage industry has been rocked by intense debates over wreck ownership.

“A lot of these kinds of debates and arguments go away,” says Miller. “It’s not that I agree with everything he has done, but I respect who he is. He has always been on the side of responsible government regulation.”

Miller also credits Marx with opening up the world of shipwrecks to the general public. “Bob has been a spokesperson who has recognized interest in shipwrecks by the non-specialist. I think people appreciate that he has opened up to them something very unique.”

Today Marx is still wreck hunting. He is occasionally accompanied on location by Jennifer, his wife of 30 years.

Marx has four daughters between the ages of 28 and 41. “The oldest one I delivered myself on Cozumel,” he says. “I just married the wee one off a couple of weeks ago.”

When asked what else he hopes to find, Marx laughs. “I guess what I’d really like to find is the Fountain of Youth. I’ve got lots of aches and pains.”

Whatever discomforts his body endures, they have not squelched the ambitions first felt by a nine-year-old reading treasure tales. After a lifetime of discovery, Marx knows better than anybody that there are still thousands of shipwrecks yet to be found.