I was in the service and stationed out in the Pacific during the Korean War. I got really into diving. [In 1951], a friend and I sent for a tank and regulator and the only place, then, you could buy it from was through [Jacques] Cousteau in France. Everybody laughed and said, "It has to be the first tank and regulator – Scuba – in the Pacific." So that's where it all started with me.
It wasn't until much later that I got interested in searching for shipwrecks. We found an old anchor off Catalina Island years ago. My buddies and I raised it and it's sitting now in a little maritime museum at Cabrillo Beach [Calif.]. That got me interested in shipwrecks. The first big expedition I funded was for the Bonhomme Richard, the John Paul Jones ship in the North Sea off Scarborough, England. We didn't find it and I've looked six times since then and haven't found it yet but I'm going to give up. Shipwrecks are never found until they want to be found. And when they are found, they're never where they're supposed to be.
Back in 1979, when we were looking for the Richard, there was an attorney on board from Texas who said, "You know, if you're going to do this, you should form a nonprofit foundation." So they said, "We'll call it the Clive Cussler Foundation." I said, "No, no, no. I've got an ego, but it's not that big." So then they thought it would be great fun to call it NUMA [The National Underwater and Marine Agency] out of [my] books. For a few years, I failed pretty miserably and then we kind of got the hang of it. We've failed more often than not, but we've had some pretty good successes, like the Confederate submarine Hunley, which we raised, and then the Carpathia [the ship that rescued survivors of the Titanic] was a favorite. You know, they made such a big deal about [Robert] Ballard and the Titanic, and [James] Cameron and the movie, so I thought, "what about the Carpathia?" I researched it and found out it had been torpedoed off Ireland in World War I. So it took us three attempts before the crew found it. And the Marie Celeste, the famous ghost ship, and others like that. Everyone thinks NUMA is in a big building with employees but it's just me sitting here at the desk when I do research on a wreck and figure there's a fighting chance to find it. Then I call a crew that handles the equipment ... and we start searching. My son [Dirk] is president, he handles a lot of the details for me. I'm going to Panama in February to search for a ship called the Roosevelt. It was the ship that Admiral [Robert] Peary used in his North Pole expeditions. It sailed for, oh, another 30 years and it was too far gone to do any repair. They just ran it into a swamp where the French were working on the canal, so it's down there somewhere. Someone jokingly said, "Why don't you find a shipwreck in Arizona, in the desert?" So, just for fun, I found out that a ship called the Uncle Sam, a tugboat they brought down from San Francisco – it was the first steamboat on the Colorado river – sank three years later. So that's always been one that, some day, I'd like to go search for.
I was always a Civil War buff. When my parents went to town on a Saturday night, they would always leave me at the library. And I got hooked on a boys series about the Civil War by two brothers – one was a Confederate and the other was a Yankee. That perked my interest and then I started reading books on the Civil War. I then concentrated on the maritime end of it. We found three Confederate Ironclads. We found three Confederate Union Ironclads in Charleston, [N.C.], and then The Cumberland, which the Merrimac sank, we found that. The Hunley, it turned out, wasn't on its way back to the shore when it went down. It didn't go down in an explosion. They were sitting there waiting for the tide to turn. It looks as if they were struck by a ship coming to save the Housatonic survivors [The Hunley sank the USS Housatonic by torpedo]. If we find something I just make an announcement and we do an archaeological report and we just move on to the next one. I've never made a big thing of it. My accountant thinks I belong in a rubber room under restraint because there's no profit in this, and we've never kept an artifact, and I've never looked for treasure. It's a fascinating pastime and I figure, at the most, every once in a while in a history book, I'll be a footnote.
• Clive Cussler's 'The Chase' is now in stores. Read about the National Underwater and Marine Agency [NUMA] at www.numa.net .