The Renaissance Man: a true national treasure
He was a buccaneering holdover from an earlier era, a figure from the island’s maritime past when it was said “every Bermudian, being born within a mile of the water, was bred amphibious ... white or black, they were all sailors and seafaring to a man, and almost to a woman ...”
Teddy Tucker’s swaggering air and boisterous manner could not help but summon up storybook images of sea rovers and swashbucklers. And certainly the treasure trove of drowned Spanish gold and silver that he recovered from Bermuda’s waters in the 1950s was the very stuff pirates’ dreams were made of.
His natural exuberance and high spirits charmed all who knew him. A huge part of the pleasure for all those who shared a boat ride or dived with Teddy Tucker, said a friend, “was partaking of the benefits of his incomparable storytelling ability. A master raconteur, he would finish a story with bell-like laughter that lit up the face of everyone within earshot”.
However, his seemingly carefree demeanour could sometimes distract from his complexity of mind and seriousness of purpose.
An internationally respected treasure hunter, marine archaeologist and ocean explorer, Teddy Tucker (1925-2014) devoted a lifetime to teasing out the secrets of the deep and sharing them with the world.
He believed that “we do two things in life: learn and contribute” and he determined from an early age to do both things to the best of his ability.
American novelist Peter Benchley, his close friend and protégé, famously described Tucker as “a walking encyclopaedia and one of the great autodidacts in the history of science — a self-taught expert on ships, coins, nautical history, underwater archaeology, painting and glassware”.
He was indeed all of these things and much more besides.
Benchley had met Tucker by chance while in Bermuda for a 1971 National Geographic story assignment. He quickly fell under his spell, becoming a close friend, ardent disciple and, ultimately, bestselling populariser of the Tucker legend.
The Bermudian adventurer served as both model and muse for Benchley’s 1976 novel The Deep, a tale of sunken treasures and latter-day freebooting set in local waters — the grizzled shark fisherman Quint in Benchley’s breakthrough 1974 book Jaws also bore a more than passing resemblance to Tucker. The success of that novel, along with the blockbuster film adaptation of The Deep released the next year, brought Tucker and his pioneering undersea work to the attention of an international audience and made his name synonymous with treasure hunting.
But not all of the treasures he sought during a lifetime spent on, and under, the sea had a dollar value attached.
“Treasure is not necessarily gold and silver,” Tucker once said. “There are a lot of other things that have just as much value ...”
Possessed of a fiercely probing intellect, boundless curiosity and seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy, after serving in the Royal Navy in the Second World War, he returned to Bermuda and embarked on a career in marine salvage with brother-in-law Robert Canton. The partners were so hard-pressed and lacking in cash to begin with that they used chains for diving weights and produced compressed air using an old aircraft de-icing pump. “We ate saltfish and turnips in the early days,” Tucker once recalled. “We didn’t make a lot of money in a hurry.”
But they persevered and salvaging scrap metal soon segued into marine archaeology and treasure hunting. After then came some of Tucker’s fabulous early treasure finds, which generated enough income to fund his seafaring activities for the next five decades.
Along the way, his interest in treasure hunting was subsumed by a passion for marine science and oceanography. His areas of expertise eventually extended from the various shipbuilding methods used for 16th-century Spanish galleons to the life cycle of the mysterious and elusive giant squid.
His accomplishments included discovering more than 100 shipwrecks on the reefs encircling Bermuda; helping the Smithsonian Institution’s Mendel Peterson to develop the modern field of marine archaeology, including contributing to the now-standard grid system used for surveying and conserving shipwrecks; collaborating with the late Dr Eugenie Clark, the internationally celebrated “Shark Lady”, whose pioneering research did much to improve our understanding of those much feared but often unfairly maligned sea creatures; and a multiyear association with National Geographic ocean explorer Emory Kristof on the Beebe science project, an expedition of marine biologists and underwater photography experts who came to Bermuda in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a quest to observe and record rare examples of deep-sea life using manned submersibles.
In the popular imagination, Tucker will, of course, always be identified with the fabled emerald-studded gold cross, which came to bear his name. He discovered it in 1955 in just 25 feet of water while exploring the skeleton of the Spanish vessel San Pedro, which had come to grief on Bermuda’s reefs in 1596.
It was the signature piece in the priceless treasure haul that Tucker had retrieved from Bermuda’s seas in the 1950s. Clare Boothe Luce, the playwright and former US congresswoman and diplomat, recounted how during a visit to Tucker’s Sandys Parish home, he spread the golden pieces he had found in Bermuda’s vast underwater graveyard of ships before her as “a champion displays his trophies, a soldier shows his medals to good friends, [including] a 16th-century bishop’s pectoral cross of purest gold, studded with seven sea-green, sea-smooth emeralds ...”
The collection was, she said breathlessly, “the greatest underwater bonanza found in Western waters” up until that time.
The emerald-swollen Tucker Cross was valued at $250,000 by the Smithsonian Institution, making it singularly the most valuable piece of treasure ever salvaged from the sea at that point.
Adding to the mystique of the cross is the continuing mystery surrounding its whereabouts. The cross was discovered to have been stolen in 1975 and replaced with a plaster substitute when it was moved from the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo to be displayed at the newly opened Bermuda Maritime Museum, now the National Museum of Bermuda.
It was said of Tucker that he learnt most of what he knew about the ocean the hard way — direct from the depths. But he complemented the thousands of hours he spent beneath the ocean by applying his quick-study mind to a library of books on subjects ranging from nautical history to marine biology.
He liked to say that Bermuda was a permanently anchored research vessel in the North Atlantic, a location that had allowed him to make the study of the sea and its mysteries his life’s work. And what impressive, and impressively wide-ranging, work it was.
By the time he died at the age of 89, his unparalleled knowledge of the world’s largest but least-explored ecosystem, along with his willingness to share what he learnt, was attracting some of the best and brightest minds in a dizzying array of disciplines to his 300-year-old house overlooking Mangrove Bay. Former Premier of Bermuda David Saul, a longtime friend and diving companion, did not overstate the case at all when, upon learning of his death, he called Tucker a Bermudian original who was “revered by scientists, academics and divers on every continent”.
And Dr Saul also got it exactly right when he described this marine archaeologist and historian, naturalist, conservationist and explorer as “the authentic Tucker treasure — a Bermudian national treasure”.