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Delgado, James
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Delgado, James

Exploring shipwrecks and preserving maritime heritage

James Delgado, Ph.D., director of maritime heritage for the National Marine Sanctuaries program, joined NOAA in 2010. In previous positions with the Institute of Nautical Archeology at Texas A&M University, the Vancouver Maritime Museum, and U.S. National Park Service, he led or participated in numerous shipwreck expeditions around the world. In 2010, he was the principal investigator for an expedition to survey the RMS Titanic shipwreck site and create detailed three-dimensional maps of the Titanic, which sunk on its maiden voyage 100 years ago on April 15, 1912. Along with exploring marine archeology, Delgado has also shared his discoveries with worldwide audiences through articles, television, books, and media interviews. From 2001 to 2006, he was a host of the international documentary television series The Sea Hunters which aired on National Geographic and History television channels. Read more about Delgado on the National Marine Sanctuaries website and his personal website. See also NOAA’s RMS Titanic, 100 Years Later website.


Why is your research important? 

The work we do connects Americans to our common heritage and especially our interaction with the sea throughout history. Understanding the past and the decisions we’ve made is important in determining where we’re headed, especially if you use the past to help make decisions about the future. When you consider the relevance of the oceans to modern life – in terms of ocean health, fisheries, the role of maritime trade and commerce, and vital ongoing missions such as charting our coastlines – having historical knowledge and perspective is invaluable.  

The oceans and lakes are the world’s greatest museum, too. There is a vast repository of ancient settlements, migration routes, sunken ships, and other parts of a vast maritime cultural landscape that lies down there. As technology increasingly gives us the means to reach places like these, being able to learn their stories and share them is important. Human stories in particular help people not only see the relevance of sites such as the Titanic, but also forge a bond that connects us, physically and emotionally, to these sites. That bond compels us to learn more, to protect certain sites in areas like the National Marine Sanctuaries, and to reach as broad an audience as possible with those stories.

How do you help wider audiences to understand and appreciate NOAA science?

NOAA is well-known for its commitment to outreach and education, having one of the finest teams in government available to scientists like me and my colleagues to reach out those wider audiences. We do that in a variety of ways, including websites and responding to media inquiries. Another way is through working with external partners. Recently, we worked with Sony and Intel to bring a group of five inner- city high school students to Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary to perform an educational, hands-on search for two shipwrecks in Lake Huron. “Project Shiphunt” was awesome – they found the wrecks using science, technology, and history, literally adding new pages to the history books. This was, I think, a life-changing experience for them. That story has reached a wider audience of over 44 million through a Sony and Intel-funded documentary, a website, and YouTube videos. That’s just one example – watch for this month’s (April 2012) National Geographic Magazine and two feature documentaries that include NOAA’s work in 2010 on the wreck of Titanic. Outside of the day job, and before I joined NOAA, I was active in outreach, including regular articles, books, and a six-year stint hosting a National Geographic Channel television series. Through those experiences, I know that people want to connect and are excited to learn about what we do.

What do you enjoy the most about your work?

Meeting people, past and present! The real-life stories of people are compelling, relevant, and powerful. We’ve just completed a genealogical study of 16 sailors who lost their lives when USS Monitor sank during the Civil War 150 years ago. They have led us to a closer understanding of themselves, their times, and what makes that wreck, now the heart of Monitor National Marine Sanctuary, special beyond the headlines of then and now. History and archaeology are about people, and I like people. That holds true for people who are not historic (yet), which in all seriousness means my colleagues and friends I have the privilege to work with. They, like the resources we deal with, make my job enjoyable.

Where do you do most of your work?

I could be semi-serious and say “at my computer.” A certain amount of work does get done that way as I write a great deal.

It is a mix of work in the office, in laboratories, and at sea. In the last year I’ve been working with the talented group at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s Advanced Imaging and Visualization Lab as three-dimensional images and high-definition mosaics of the entire Titanic wreck site that we captured in 2010 were assembled. I also was in the water diving on and excavating a Civil War blockade runner and on the boat with the Project Shiphunt students as we surveyed Lake Huron. The field work is followed by the time in the lab and in the office, analyzing, writing, and reaching out.

What in your office (or lab) could you not live without?

The people I work with. The team at the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in particular and the NOAA family are a joy to work with and some of the best I’ve had the privilege to work with in a career in archaeology that now spans 40 years.

If you could invent any tool to make your work more efficient and cost were no object, what would it be? Why?

A “you-are-here-looking-at-this-with me” virtual-reality device that transmits real-time, in high-definition, with guaranteed band-width capacity so we can share what we do when we are on a site. At times we are the first to see something long-forgotten or unknown to modern audiences. Other times we are the first to see something that’s well-known, like when I was chief scientist for Titanic 2010 and we were seeing the entire wreck in 3-D. We would love for more people to share these moments of discovery with us.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in science? 

It would be 6th grade when excellent teachers introduced a young lad to the mysteries of Egypt, which led to wider interest in archaeology that was then honed to a razor-sharp intention to pursue a career with digs on prehistoric Native American sites when I was age 14.

How did you become interested in communicating about science?

At the same time. How else do you convince your parents to let you go out every day after school on a dig and excavate more than 300 burials over the course of a year?

What’s at the top of your recommended reading list for a young person exploring career options?

Any book that speaks honestly and with passion about the past. Some favorites include Robert Ballard’s books, especially on Titanic. 

What part of your job with NOAA did you least expect to be doing?

There were no surprises. I worked for the government before, ran non-profits for 20 years, and understood that administration was a key part of the job. 

Do you have an outside hobby?

Music. Listening to it, singing it, and as of late, learning to play it.

What would you be doing if you were not working for NOAA?

Boldly going, seeking new sites, new discoveries, evidence of past civilizations….with the public there at my side every step of the way.  


James Delgado earned a bachelor's degree in history from San Francisco State University in 1981. He also earned a master's degree in history (maritime history and underwater research) from East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C., and a doctorate in archeology from Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia.

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