Curiosity Daily

The Explorers Club - An Interview with Peter Tattersfield

Episode Summary

Today we are speaking to another member of the Explorers Club, Peter Tattersfield. Peter has an awesome story for us today about his work finding the shipwreck of the Steamship Independence, which sank off the coast of Baja, Mexico in 1853.

Episode Notes

Today we are speaking to another member of the Explorers Club, Peter Tattersfield. Peter has an awesome story for us today about his work finding the shipwreck of the Steamship Independence, which sank off the coast of Baja, Mexico in 1853.

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Find episode transcripts here:

Episode Transcription




CALLI: Hi Nate! To continue our Explorers Club series, today I want to take you on a bit of a good-old-fashioned adventure.

NATE: I’m intrigued… what do you mean by old-fashioned though?

CALLI: Well, we usually talk to people in this series about exploration and discovery, whether that be through space, the poles, mountaineering, etc. But our guest today comes to us with a bit of a different perspective. He’s rediscovering as opposed to discovering. He’s combing through history to provide context to some of our cultural touchstones.

NATE: Sounds impressive! How’s he doing that?

CALLI: One word: shipwrecks.

PETER: We did a lot of survey work in that bay and nothing was coming up. Nothing. We needed to get into that beach. And the day of the day that we were going to land on that beach was incredibly high surf. And so we had to hike across the island to get to that bay. And that was a five mile hike. So our expedition turned from an aquatic to a land expedition that day. We crossed mountains to get to the bay. But I knew as soon as we got there, when I saw the similarity of the sketch done by that survivor and seeing that same angle, I knew that this was the bay. And immediately we started to as the tide started rolling out, we started taking our metal detectors and surveying the area where the low tide was and things were really popping and pieces of metal started materializing. And what we could determine what looked like the ship's paddle wheel axle started taking form in the surf. And as we were looking in that area, other archeologists were combing the areas above the high tide mark, and that's where they discovered the the human skull. And so when we put all of this together that day and we radioed over to Roberta Honka, who's the director of Ena, he said to me, Congratulations, you've found the Independence. And I tell you, I did two tequila shots that afternoon on the hike back. It was an incredible feeling and an unbelievable discovery.


NATE: Hi everyone! You’re about to get smarter in just a few minutes with Curiosity Daily from Discovery. Time flies when you’re learnin’ super cool stuff. I’m Nate.

CALLI: And I’m Calli. If you’re dropping in for the first time, welcome to Curiosity: the show where we aim to blow your mind by helping you grow your mind. If you’re a loyal listener, welcome back!

NATE: We’ve been doing a series profiling some incredible adventurers from the Explorers Club who are pioneering research in their respective fields. And it sounds like today is no exception. Calli, mind telling us who this week’s trailblazer is?

CALLI: Not at all! Today we are speaking to Peter Tattersfield. As I mentioned, Peter has an awesome story for us today about his work finding the shipwreck of the Steamship Independence, which sank off the coast of Baja, Mexico in 1853.

NATE: And you mentioned there’s an important cultural connection to his findings right?

CALLI: That’s correct! But first, let’s get into the background of how the SS Independence shipwreck came to be.

PETER: So I have to take you back to 1853. It's the height of the Gold Rush era, and steamships were used to transport miners up from Utah, down from New York, down to Nicaragua on the East Coast. And then there was a land bridge crossing Nicaragua to the west coast of Nicaragua, where another steamship would transport them up the West Coast, up to San Francisco. And the SS Independence is providing that service on the West Coast, leaving from San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua, heading up to San Francisco. And in 1853, on February the 16th, it wrecked off of Islamorada on some rocks that are on the very southern tip of this island. And the captain, this happened very early in the morning. Very early. The captain claimed that he thought what he saw were whales, when in fact, there were waves smashing against rocks. And he impaled the ship against these rocks. He was able to back it off. And but he knew that the ship was mortally wounded. He's a gentleman by name, Captain Sampson. He didn't know the waters very well. He was carrying over 400 passengers and 60 crew that day. And he was he tried to make the island try to get to a beach where he could ditch the ship, save the crew and passengers. And in that process, he found a bay, a cove about four miles from the initial impact. And in the while he was attempting to beach it, he smashed into some more rocks and the boilers exploded. And all of this is happening at about 630 in the morning on the open ocean side of Isla, Marguerite, which is Pacific surf, high waves, cold, cold water, high winds. Panic ensued and 400 people had made a choice. They either had to swim because there was only one lifeboat and fight their way into the surf to get to shore. Or they were lucky enough to get on board that one little lifeboat and make it to the beach. Over 130 passengers were killed and there was one member of the crew. We’ve read and done research. He is credited with saving over 90 passengers that day. He swam back and forth. He commandeered the lifeboat and went back to save more passengers. 

NATE: Wow, 400 people onboard and 90 passengers saved by one sailor. Who is this guy?

CALLI: Wait for it…

PETER: This gentleman was an engineer by the name of Tom Sawyer.

NATE: No way. Like Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer? 

CALLI: The very same.

NATE: So that’s the cultural context.

CALLI: Right! But I still had to ask him about the why of it all. Tom Sawyer is a major benchmark in American literature, but is that the only reason to look for the wreck?

PETER: Well, the big the the key attraction in this wreck is that cultural connection. It was an incredible tragedy at the time. I want to say one of the worst maritime accidents in Mexico's history with over 130 people killed. It's during a very prominent time in U.S. history during the Gold Rush era. And that west coast of Mexico is littered with steamships, literally from Nicaragua all the way up to San Francisco. It's incredible the amount of wrecks that litter the Pacific coast of the United States. And it brings forth that that spirit of entrepreneurial ism that the American spirit has, that they're willing to gamble everything in order to pursue their destiny. And a lot of people didn't make it.

NATE: So these survivors that Tom Sawyer saved, what happened next? 

PETER: Imagine 1853, you're landing on a desolate island, over 200 passengers. There's no water, there's no shelter. And things are looking pretty bleak. The thing that saved them is that the island is a natural barrier to Bahia Magdalena and it's it's Islamorada down by the Magdalena is on the Pacific coast of Baja, California. It's about a six hour drive from Cabo San Lucas. But on the Pacific coast, very barren, not a lot of development out there. And in 1853, much like it is today, every year, the California gray whales migrate to these bays to procure their their calves, strengthen them and prepare them for the journey up to Alaska. Today, it's a tourist attraction. People go to visit this bay to see these whales. In 1853, it was hunting grounds. So the whaling industry was there that time. Within three days, they were transported up to San Francisco and it was there that Tom Sawyer said the life of the sea was he he'd seen enough and he joined the local fire department. And and during that time, while he was a fireman, he became acquaintance with a local reporter by the name of Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens. And they formed an incredible relationship. They were drinking, buddies, carousing. And it is what we believe is how Samuel Clemens met Tom and used his character and name for the literature novels that made him so famous.

NATE: That is amazing! I’ve never heard this backstory before.

CALLI: Pretty incredible right? I was so curious about this expedition because it happened such a long time ago and many people have tried to look for the wreck, I really wanted to know how does one even go about searching for something like this.

PETER: So our strategy was to follow the route of the independence from Tosca, where she made that first initial impact. And we dragged sonar up and down that coastline. We found one wreck. But she was a steamship that sank in 1931. Know nothing of similar. And so now we were going to focus on this one bay, that there's a there's a great image that a survivor did of the sketch of the disaster. And you can see some geology that is very peculiar. And then we also have this factor of the the mass grave where the captain ordered their burial. They the locals told us that they knew of a bay where human remains appeared every now and then. They couldn't explain to us why. And they also told us that this bay went by the name of Albert Liveaboard, which, if you translate it, it means the steamer. They didn't understand why. They didn't know. They didn't know how it got that name. But those were all components. So when I had the testimony of the kept telling us where he. The shift approximately from the point of impact. I've got the sketch that a survivor did. And I've got local accounts of human remains washing up on a beach with the name of the Liveaboard. 

NATE: So it was through all these first and second-hand accounts that Peter was able to locate the wreck. After so many years, that’s pretty insane.

PETER: The big key element that helped us locate it was we found the testimony of the captain. You can imagine. He arrives in San Francisco, 130 people are killed. He is sued for negligence. All kinds of legal problems with the shipping line. And in his testimony that he gave, he basically says where he impaled against those rocks and what he did to salvage that boat. And in a prior to that discovery of that testimony, was looking on the inside of the bay. And so when we found that testimony, we redirected them and focus had them focus on the outside of the bay, on the open ocean side of the island. And so our search became much narrower and we were able to locate her.

CALLI: So they find the ship. What do you think they do next?

NATE: Other than some tequila shots, I’m not really sure. Go treasure hunting? Would they try to bring it out of the water?

PETER: So we've uncovered it. We found it, and we know where she is. Extracting it. Excavating it is a multimillion-dollar affair. We're not sure we're going to go down that route. She's in a very desolate location. She's literally resting almost right on the beach itself when she caught fire. She drifted up and the winds and waves have taken her to a point where now she is really resting in between the high tide and low tide mark over. Now, 170 years, she's been decimated. She's broken up and she's very much buried in about a meter worth of sand. But some of it becomes exposed during very extreme low tides we have found. Well, let me take you back to the day when the incident took place. 70 bodies washed ashore that day and the captain ordered their burial above the high tide mark. And so we were able to locate that mass grave. There was literally a skull that was exposed from sand and beach erosion. And so we've located them at the location of the mass grave. And our intention is to go back and retrieve one of those skulls and perform DNA and facial reconstruction on her. But actually removing parts of the ship of we might think that the best place for her to be is right where she's resting today. 

CALLI: The way that Peter is able to find balance between exploration and preservation is really, really impressive. I feel like we have this expectation that some people in his line of work are more interested in what they can find physically from these kind of wrecks but Peter approaches his work with a lot of respect for the people who were present during the wreckage, the locals who helped him locate the wreck, and the natural environment.

PETER: You protect what you love. And if you visit these sites and you combine that with the combination of making contact with the local folks in those areas, it instills this level of protection with you. In the case of Islam Marguerita and the USS Independence, we have built a strong relationship with the local fishing village of Alcatraz. And through them, we're going to build a little coastal nautical museum for them. That's going to showcase the many wrecks that they have in their waters in the hopes that in the future it will help diversify their economy. They'll bring in a sustainable tourism model. People will want to go visit those sites. They'll want to go dove these wrecks. And there will be nobody who will be more inclined to protect those sites than that community. We're only there to a week, two weeks out of the year. They're there 365, 24 seven. They have every inclination to protect it. And so it's our hope that if we instill this model of helping to develop sustainable tourism for local fishing communities, that they'll be able to diversify their economy. And we gain the protection of the sites so that other folks and people can enjoy these sites for generations to come.

NATE: Definitely not a cut-throat treasure hunter. I’m really inspired by his passion for history and the compassion that he approaches his work with. I guess my main question is, for our future explorers, how does someone get into this line of work?

CALLI: Well I can’t speak for everyone, but Peter knew this is what he wanted to do from a young age.

PETER: My mother, when I was eight years old, gave me my first subscription to National Geographic. And every year in my Christmas stocking, I get my renewal. And it's always been part of my my persona. I have a spirit of exploration within me. I never sit still. I have been diving since I was 13 years old. Yeah. And I hold multiple technical diving certifications. I've traveled all over the world, and for the last 30 years, I've been involved with INAH, which is the Institute of National Anthropology and History, based in Mexico and their marine archeology division. And I help organize and participate in major archeological finds underwater in Mexico. So that jump between being a diver, an explorer, a historian, to me been a very natural fit. And it's exposed me to great discoveries. It's broadened my diving profile tremendously. I don't get to choose where these sites are or where these wrecks are. I've dove in the caves of the Yucatan. It's it's that spirit of exploration and discovery that fuels the passion within me. 

[SFX: Whoosh]

CALLI: Not only has he been pursuing this work since he was a kid, Peter also has some great advice to both his own kids and anyone out there who is interested in growing as an explorer. 

PETER: I'm lucky. My wife's a teacher, and so I have an audience. Every year I give two or three lectures in different schools, and we talk about discovery and exploration and listening to their questions and seeing their eyeballs when I'm giving these lectures. I know I'm hitting their hearts. And what ends up happening is that it's not just the kids, but the parents also are very, very motivated. I think that history draws a lot of people. And when you add that nautical passion to it, it really inspires these kids for discovery. On my hearing, what has transpired and how I'm able to touch it and bring it to them is really, really motivating. But I keep telling them from from as early on, get outside, you're not going to discover anything sitting in a classroom. You'll learn about it on the Internet. But you got to go and get your feet wet. You got to go hike. You got to be outdoors. And you're not going, unfortunately. And I tell them there's a lot of places where we go. There's no Hyatt, there's no Hilton Hotel. No. No one's putting that chocolate on your pillow at night. You might be swimming, swinging from a hammock. You'll be communing with a local community. In many cases, these are indigenous communities, local fishing communities that houses and feed us. And we're very grateful for them. They are their little fishing communities. They become our guides. They know the waters better than anybody else, and it becomes an incredible interaction. And exposing young kids to that is also an unbelievable experience. And so I encourage them to get up and get out.

CALLI: To wrap this up, the reason Peter was able to pursue this expedition was because of The Explorer’s Club. I’ll let him explain the club’s role in his research.

PETER: Without it? We wouldn't be sitting here today, and they've been instrumental. They awarded me this tremendous opportunity. And with that, I was able to pull together my people knowledgeable and gold rush, air steamers, archeologists with a heavy focus in that era. And we were able to pull a team together and head out to this site in this region for the better part of two weeks to search for the S.S. Independence. Without those funds, um, we I would have I can say that we would have found it, but we would have found out over a period of two years we're just hit or miss. Instead of two weeks of concentrated effort, we were able to locate her very systematically and very quickly. Without that, we certainly would have found her, but it would have taken us many, many trips. Many, many visits out there.

[SFX: Whoosh]

NATE: Well Calli, you were right. That was an amazing adventure to hear about. Thank you so much to Peter Tattersfield for speaking with us today, he really made me want to go out into the world to find some sunken ships!

CALLI: And maybe also read the Adventures of Tom Sawyer? Anyway, we’ll be back next week with some new episodes of our Explorer’s Club series where we chat with more incredible adventurers.

[SFX: Whoosh]

STEVE: I had heard a legend that there was a lost city somewhere in the misguided jungle that people have been looking for for several hundred years. Since the days of the conquistadors. Nobody has found it. So I mounted an expedition in 1994 with some colleagues and actually with an adventurer who told me the legend. And we went looking. We had a great time, quite an adventure, but we did not find the Lost City. However, in that journey, we came upon a large boulder up in the mountains of the rainforest, you know, long several days of paddling canoes and hiking and trudging. And there was this wonderful carving of a man wearing a strange headdress or hat. He had a look like a stick, and it looked like a sack with seeds or something falling out of it. It was quite beautiful. And it's in a part of the jungle that you could only see maybe 20 feet in front of you. And I went, What's this doing there? There had to be something going on.

NATE: Until next time, stay curious!