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DAN Member Profile: Clive Cussler

Master of undersea adventure

You know you're on an airplane bound for a dive destination when you look around the cabin and see all the Clive Cussler books being read. Cussler, author of more than 40 fiction and nonfiction books, creates characters in his novels who are serious scuba divers, not merely poseurs wearing orange Doxa dive watches. Divers around the world have envied the adventures of his fictional hero, Dirk Pitt, a swashbuckling cross between Jacques Cousteau and James Bond, who discovers shipwrecks and triumphs over world-class villains. 

Like his fictional hero, Cussler is an experienced scuba diver and shipwreck explorer. He took up diving in 1951 as a U.S. Air Force flight engineer stationed in Hawaii. "I read about Jacques Cousteau, so my friend and I sent away to France for a tank and regulator," he says. "It was one of the first scuba rigs ever manufactured. There were no dive training agencies at the time, so we just donned our gear, ran into the water and figured it out on our own." 

After his stint in the Air Force, Cussler remained an active diver and an avid fan of historic shipwrecks. He went on to become a gas station owner, advertising copywriter and, ultimately, a bestselling novelist, so it is no coincidence that Dirk Pitt's adventures usually involve wrecks. "There is a special mystique about shipwrecks … most are still lost, and you can't simply walk up and touch them," he says. 

Funded by revenue from his novels, Cussler launched his first expedition in 1978 to find the shipwreck Bonhomme Richard, the American frigate commanded by John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War. He was unsuccessful, but the experience motivated him to create the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving maritime history. Because NUMA is featured prominently in the Dirk Pitt novels, readers often assume that it is fictional, but it is indeed real. Under the auspices of NUMA, Cussler and his crew of marine experts have discovered more than 60 historically significant wreck sites and turned them over to nonprofits, universities and government agencies. "We are not treasure hunters," Cussler says. 

Some of Cussler's most important finds include the CSS H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to sink a ship in battle; the famous ghost ship Mary Celeste; the U-20, the U-boat that sank the Lusitania; and the RMS Carpathia, the ship that rescued the survivors of the Titanic. Although his discoveries have been enormous, Cussler keeps his expeditions small. He travels with only two or three team members and a 26-foot research vessel. "We use side-scan sonar to locate what we think is a wreck site, and then we send two or three divers to check it out. Most of our divers use scuba, the one exception being the recovery of the Hunley, during which they used surface-supplied air." 

Most of Cussler's own diving is done no deeper than 130 feet on air and without the high-tech gadgets employed by Dirk Pitt. "I don't even carry a camera," he says. Since Cussler himself does not use high-tech dive equipment, he turns to experts to ensure that the diving-related information in his books is accurate. "I consult with dive equipment manufacturers, researchers and engineers who work on the latest technology." 

In addition to constantly honing his knowledge of undersea technology, Cussler stays current on dive safety issues. "Many years ago, in the 1960s, before I had an experienced team to work with, I witnessed a horrible diving accident off Catalina Island," Cussler says. "A group of divers were trying to recover an anchor from 180 feet. I noticed that one of the divers had suddenly disappeared. Eventually, we found him at 200 feet, and he was gone. That incident made me acutely aware of the need for a safe dive plan and the buddy system. It also makes me appreciate DAN, which is on call 24/7 to assist in diving emergencies." 

Cussler is currently working on five new novels with associate writers, including his son, Dirk. In July 2010, he is mounting his eighth expedition to search for the still-missing Bonhomme Richard. "If I find the Bonhomme Richard," says Cussler, "I'll die a happy man." It's apparent that even at age 78, Clive Cussler is still a world-class adventurer.

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