Interview with James Delgado: marine scientist extraordinaire

Name: James Delgado

Job title: Director of Maritime Heritage, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, NOAA

Job description: Overseeing and directing maritime research, underwater archaeology, and heritage outreach, education and partnerships in NOAA’s nationwide system of National Marine Sanctuaries

Formal training/ education:  NAUI and PADI trained diver since 1981, AAUS and NOAA certified science diver, PhD in Archaeology

Other training/ work or study experiences: A variety of jobs and experiences related to history and archaeology, with a focus on the maritime and naval worlds has led to being described as a curator, museum director, educator, television host, author, explorer, historian, archaeologist, story teller and my favorite and the most accurate, “lifelong and passionate student” because my curiosity and eagerness to learn has never diminished.


  1. What influenced you to choose this career path?  My love of history and archaeology was fired by good teachers in the 5th and 6th grades, the local librarian, and going on my first excavation at age fourteen.  I’ve been fortunate to be one of those whose work is their passion.
  2. How long have you been involved?  Forty years
  3. What do you like most and least about it?  The most? Connecting to the past and learning about it, about people whose stories cry out to be told, and touching history – as well as traveling not only around the world but also traveling “through time” thanks to the magic of archaeology.  The least?  The price paid at times of being away from those I love – my wife, children and other family.
  4. What are you currently working on that relates to marine forensics?  I’m chief scientist from the 2010 mapping of the Titanic site, working with an exceptional team of colleagues from WHOI’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory and the National Park Service’s Submerged Resources Center as we assemble a detailed sonar and visual map of this amazing wreck’s many components scattered across 1 2 x 3 mile area of seabed 2 ½ miles down to better understand the forces and processes that transformed Titanic from ship to shipwreck.
  5. Are you an authority in any particular shipwreck or an area within marine forensics?  I’m a life-long student and I see every project I work on as an archaeologist as a chance to learn as I apply forensics and other science and history to the wrecks we’re working on.  That has included being part of, and at times leading teams studying the ships sunk in the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll, the exploration ships Maud and Fox in the Arctic, partially burned ships and their cargoes from the California Gold Rush that are now buried beneath San Francisco’s financial district (the landfilled harbor of 1849), an 1865 deep diving submarine, “Explorer” now wrecked in Panama’s Pearl Islands, the infamous ghost ship Mary Celeste, wrecked in Haiti, Titanic, and ships unnamed but with fascinating characteristics and stories to be told.
  6. What has been your most significant contribution and/or experience?  Being able to share what I’ve learned with the public, hopefully showing how history and archaeology and marine forensics are not only “cool” but relevant, and especially in being able to work with and help young people starting out in the field.  I’m proudest of my work with students, and most recently of an amazing project of Sony’s and Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, “Project Shiphunt,” where we worked with and I think positively affect five incredible young people in what was more than a quest for finding and learning from a lost ship but also a lesson about life.
  7. How has your work improved safety on our seas?   Hopefully by providing opportunities for and inspiring young people who will be the next generation of scientists and forensics experts who will carry it all forward, innovate and contribute.
  8. What are some of the greatest innovations in marine forensics science?  The amazing leaps forward in sonar and visualization I see being done by Bill Lange and his team at Woods Hole, by folks like BlueView and ADUS, the invention and perfection of tools like the REMUS, and the power of the Internet to connect and educate.
  9. What still needs to be accomplished in this field?  It’s a big ocean….and the world’s greatest museum at the bottom of it needs to be explored, learned from and shared with the most significant things saved and set aside for visits but not exploitation, looting or destruction in areas like the National Marine Sanctuaries.  We cannot nor should we “save it all,” but we should act responsibly to conserve and protect all the ocean has to offer.


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. What would you say to a young person considering this field?  The great age of exploration is not dead – it is just beginning.  And YOU can make a difference.

11.   Where should they start?  In their local library, one of the greatest parts of our civilization and culture – read, read, read and then get out there and learn not just from books, but by doing.  Never give up, work hard, earn what you do, because nothing in life that is worth having is simply handed to you.

Major Publications

Misadventures of a Civil War Submarine: Iron, Gunpowder and Pearls. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012.

Silent Killers: The History and Archaeology of the Submarine.  Oxford and New York: Osprey Publishing, 2011.

Nuclear Dawn: The Atomic Bomb From the Manhattan Project to the Cold War. Oxford and New York: Osprey Publishing, 2009.

Gold Rush Port: The Maritime Archaeology of the San Francisco Waterfront. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2009.

Khubilai Khan’s Lost Fleet: In Search of a Legendary Armada. California: University of California Press, 2009.

Lost Warships: An Archaeological Tour of War at Sea. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre / New York: Facts on File/London: Conway Maritime Press, 2001.

Across the Top of the World: The Quest for the Northwest Passage. Vancouver and Toronto: Douglas and McIntyre/New York: Facts on File,/London: British Museum Press, 1999.

Encyclopaedia of Underwater and Maritime Archaeology. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.

Ghost Fleet: The Sunken Ships of Bikini Atoll. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

To California By Sea: A Maritime History of the California Gold Rush. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990




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