ST. PETERSBURG — David L. Mearns has been called many things: explorer, detective, scientist, hunter, coroner.
That's because his work is fascinating — and grim.
Mearns, a 51-year-old father of three, is one of the world's most renowned shipwreck hunters. The U.S.-born explorer and his British company, Blue Water Recoveries Ltd., have found 22 major wrecks.
He holds the world record for the deepest wreck ever found, the German blockade runner SS Rio Grande, located at a depth of 3 1/2 miles. His discoveries range from the famous — HMS Hood, the British battle cruiser lost fighting the German battleship Bismarck — to the emotional, such as his recent Australian World War II finds, the HMAS Sydney and AHS Centaur.
Uncovering the Sydney brought closure to the families of those lost, while discovering the Centaur — a hospital ship sunk by a Japanese submarine — almost led to a row between the two nations.
Mearns returns to St. Petersburg for a 7:30 p.m. Tuesday lecture at the Mahaffey Theater, which is open to the public.
He's an alumnus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, where he graduated in 1986 with a master's degree from the College of Marine Science.
How did USF St. Petersburg influence your career?
"I entered as a marine biologist, but after my first year switched to marine geology and I switched advisers to Al Hine (who taught there for 19 years).
"One of the things about Al Hine is that he's a seagoing scientist. With Al, I was able to go to sea very often, and it was the first time I was exposed to the geophysical instruments that would become the tools of my trade.
"It opened my eyes to a whole different world of not just learning about the geomorphology of the oceans and the seabed, but also using these very powerful tools to find lost objects. That was the first sort of spark in my own imagination about what I wanted to do."
What kind of research must you do on land before you can go to sea?
"When you're looking for something that has been lost for 60, 80, 100-plus years, then the information that you use to actually find that object — whether it's a plane, a ship — is based on primary sources, the people who were there.
"Eyewitnesses are participants in the actual loss. You want to find their reports, testimonials, anything they spoke or wrote. Because what's certain is that with time, information degrades. People forget. Their memories and their minds change."
Why is discovering shipwrecks, even those lost decades ago, still such an emotional experience for people?
"When ships have been lost at sea, where there has been a loss of life, relatives on land are left wondering: What happened? If they don't have a good explanation for what happened or why their loves ones were lost, they can't accept it. They can never rest.
"When there's a life lost at sea, there isn't a body to be buried, there isn't a ship for people to see. … It's very, very hard for people to accept that. And for years they continue to wonder: Were they taken as prisoner of war? Were they cast adrift? Their hope never dies. It's amazing, because that hope doesn't last for just one month or one year. It can last for decades because they've never had that closure.
"That's one of the reasons why it's very, very important to find some of these wartime losses, to give people that comfort, to let them know exactly where their loved ones lie."
What's next on the horizon for you?
"Right now we have partners of ours involved in the search for the Air France Airbus plane that crashed in the Atlantic Ocean. (Air France Flight 447 went down in 2009.)
"In terms of future projects … I've worked an awful lot to develop and raise funding to find (Antarctic explorer) Ernest Shackleton's vessel Endurance, which sank in 1915 at a depth of 3,000 meters. Hopefully, before I hang up my explorer's boots, it's something that I have a chance to find.
"It'll take a great deal of money, $10 million to $20 million, to even consider doing it. It'll be the greatest shipwreck search challenge ever conducted and I don't think there's anything to top it. It's not the depth. It's not the cold. It's not the remote location in Antarctica, although all those things are not trivial to surmount. It is the ice.
"The problem is that you have to deal with the same ice floes that crushed Endurance."