BY JEREMY SHERE
When Charles Beeker isn’t holed up in his subterranean, nautically themed lab in the basement of the IU Health, Physical Education and Recreation building [now the School of Public Health], he’s usually somewhere in the Caribbean, underwater, racing to save sunken ships and other undersea artifacts from unscrupulous treasure hunters.
“I’ve been working for years to put treasure hunters out of business,” says Beeker, 57, director of the Academic Diving and Underwater Science programs at IU. “Why should a bunch of mercenaries be able to loot shipwrecks and destroy these important sites?”
In other words, Beeker is sort of a modern day Indiana Jones, without the whip. He even got in a bar fight with a frustrated treasure hunter in the Dominican Republic. “This drunken American came staggering toward me and started getting a little rowdy,” Beeker recalls. “The guy had spent his savings and lost his marriage, and I guess he blamed me.”
The thwarted treasure seeker was upset because he’d been after something that Beeker had found in 2007: the submerged remains of the Quedagh Merchant, a ship belonging to the infamous 17th-century pirate Captain William Kidd. The discovery made international headlines and was the subject of a National Geographic documentary.
“I’ve been to thousands of shipwreck sites and most have been looted,” says Beeker, who in 2008 was awarded $200,000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development to turn the Captain Kidd shipwreck site into a protected underwater park. “But I was amazed to find that the Kidd site was pristine—nothing had been touched.”
While Beeker may be best known for discovering Captain Kidd’s ship, it’s hardly his only contribution to underwater archaeology and preservation. In 1988 he helped author the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, a federal law that led to Beeker’s involvement in the creation of one of the country’s first underwater parks in 1989 off the coast of Florida—the San Pedro Underwater Archaeological Preserve State Park. More recently, Beeker and several IU graduate students last year found two complete extinct sloth skeletons and an extinct primate skull in a ceremonial “sink hole” in the Dominican Republic.
A self-described workaholic, Beeker is currently juggling several projects, including a partnership with National Geographic to look for the lost ships of Christopher Columbus, believed to have sunk near La Isabela, on the Dominican Republic’s northwest coast. If he’s successful, Beeker says, “Columbus will be my most significant discovery yet.”