Hooked on adventure

Smith tracks down forgotten treasures

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North Idaho native and underwater explorer Eric Smith comes face to face with an ancient sphinx in Alexandria, Egypt. (Photo courtesy of CHRISTOPH GERIGK for Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation)

SANDPOINT — Like many kids raised in the boundless wilderness of North Idaho, young Eric Smith spent his formative years fantasizing about exploring the world and living the life of an adventurer.

Where he differs from the typical childhood day dreamer, Smith’s nomadic fantasies never wavered. Instead of settling for a more stable, buttoned-down life, Smith, now 47, doggedly pursued his career path and has spent more than a decade traversing the globe, living out his childhood vision.

Smith’s job as an underwater explorer has taken him to Egypt, where he helped discover the long lost ruins of Cleopatra’s sunken palace, and to the inner sanctum of a Bolivian volcano, were he worked with NASA to find life in the sweltering belly of a crater lake.

While he always had an itch to see the world, Smith can pinpoint one fateful day at the Sandpoint library as the nexus event that shaped the rest of his life.

Wandering through the corridors of the library and not exactly sure what he was looking for, Smith’s 16-year-old eyes zeroed in on a book by turn-of-the-century archeologist Lawrence Griswold called “Tombs, Travel and Trouble.”

A precursor to Indiana Jones, Griswold’s book weaves together a series of wild tales involving “headhunters, poisonous snakes, dead employees, and a ship with a dead engine and no water aboard stuck in the middle of the ocean,” according to its book jacket.

After reading the book, Smith knew he’d found his calling.

“At that time, when I read that book, I said, ‘Oh, yeah, this is the type of work I want to do,’” he said.

Not knowing how to break into the world of high adventure, Smith rounded up a crew of like-minded swashbucklers and staged his own underwater expedition. The year was 1995, and Smith had his mind set on making a name for himself by filming — and broadcasting over the Internet — a group of sleeping sharks off the coast of Florida.

He invited hordes of media and fellow explorers to witness what was supposed to be his triumphant entrance into the exploration industry, but things didn’t work out according to plan.

“The funny thing is it was actually a failure,” Smith said. “We were out there for a week and no sleeping sharks showed up.”

With a high-profile flop as the first and only item on his resume, Smith wondered if his career had crashed before it could take off. But instead of making him a laughing stock, Smith’s sleeping shark fiasco endeared him to one of the most respected underwater archaeologists in the word, Moroccan-born Franck Goddio.

Goddio, who had survived his own cringe-worthy early career failures, empathized with Smith and offered him a spot on his crew.

Smith’s first big job took him to Alexandria, Egypt, where Goddio had already spent years trying to locate the sunken ruins of Cleopatra’s palace. The site, which had been underwater since the fourth century A.D., was considered something of a holy grail for archeologists.

Smith was a relative newcomer to the Goddio team when, in 1997, he made what would become the most important discovery of his young career. While swimming to his work site, Smith stumbled upon an odd shape. He drifted closer, straining to make out what he was in front of him. As his eyes adjusted, it became obvious that he was staring into the imposing face of a granite sphinx, which historians now believe represents Cleopatra’s father.

Stunned, Smith wasn’t sure what to do about his discovery.

“My heart raced and my first urge was to bolt to the surface and shout to anybody that might be nearby and just cry out hysterically,” he said.

Instead of making a scene, Smith decided to play it cool and bided his time by cleaning the sphinx until another team member arrived. As it turns out, Smith’s discovery was just one of the many priceless artifacts that would soon be uncovered at the site. The entire collection has since been cleaned and taken to dry land, where a worldwide exhibition was assembled. The traveling show has gone through Europe and Asia, and more than two million people have now seen the relics. Smith has seen the exhibition several times, but said he still feels a rush of exhilaration when he comes face to face with the familiar artifacts.

“It was really exciting for me to finally see them,” he said. “Because I’d seen them on the bottom of the ocean, and I’d seen them in an overgrown, weedy lot where we stored them while the concept of the exhibition was being prepared. To finally see them in a proper exhibition space was just really one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my life.”

Smith, who is back in North Idaho for a series of lectures, is working for a new company, Aqua Survey, Inc., to develop an electromagnetic metal detection system that has the potential to revolutionize the industry.

 In the coming months and years, Smith and his crew will be using the new technology to scour the depths of the sea in search of the submerged remains of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin’s sunken fleet of turtle ships. A Korean folk hero of the16th century, Sun-Sin is considered one of the era’s most brilliant naval strategists for his numerous victories over Japanese invaders.

The fleet of turtle ships has been missing for more than 400 years, and its discovery would be yet another notch in Smith’s belt. Despite his success, Smith said his goal is not fame, but longevity.

“I want to put myself in a position to be able to keeping doing this for as long as I can,” he said.

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