Arrr You Ready for Cape Cod’s New Pirate Museum?

Meet the seafaring adventurer behind the Whydah Pirate Museum in West Yarmouth.

pirate museum cape cod

Illustration by Kagan McLeod; Photographs (Below) by Center for Historic Shipwreck Preservation

Ask Barry Clifford to tell you about his craziest experience, and he’ll need some time to weigh the options. “I’ve had a lot of scary moments,” he says. “I work in two of the most dangerous countries in the world: Madagascar and Haiti.” But as it turns out, the event that still stands out most to the 71-year-old treasure hunter occurred far closer to home, just off the shores of Cape Cod, where he found himself being circled by a 17-foot-long great white shark.

That’s just life when you’re one of the world’s most noted underwater explorers. Fortunately, Clifford’s newest adventure on Cape Cod should prove far tamer than his past exploits: This summer he’s opening a museum in Yarmouth that will house a full-scale replica of the Whydah Gally, a pirate ship that sank in 1717 not far from Wellfleet.

Clifford discovered the wreck and its accompanying treasure in 1984; to this day, it remains the only fully authenticated pirate booty on Earth. For years, the haul—which includes roughly 400,000 coins and pieces of jewelry with cryptic engravings—and a full-scale replica of the ship have been touring the country, appearing at museums in Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and beyond.

Looking to find a permanent home for the exhibit, Clifford decided to transform the now-defunct Zooquarium into the Cape’s newest museum. At the heart of Clifford’s project is an interactive lab where visitors can watch archaeologists work their way through the fortune piece by piece. “We have hundreds of thousands of artifacts that are still encapsulated in concretions and chests and bags that have never been opened,” he says. “People will be able to see pirate treasure being discovered.”

For Clifford, finding the sunken riches was only one small part of the puzzle. The crew of the Whydah—originally a slave ship—plundered more than 50 vessels under the leadership of Captain Sam Bellamy. Known as “Black Sam,” Bellamy and other unlucky members of his crew met their watery end nearly 300 years ago. Clifford hopes that having a dedicated space to analyze individual pieces of the treasure will reveal new chapters of history. “It’s not what you find,” he says. “It’s what you find out.”

A Peek at the Plunder

whydah pirate museum cape cod

The engraving on this bronze bell reads “The Whydah Gally, 1716”—a mark of authenticity.

whydah pirate museum cape cod

This pewter teapot “would be charming were it not that a leg bone was found jammed in its ebony handle,” says Clifford’s son Brandon.

Got change? When the Whydah went down, it contained thousands of coins that its crew had seized from other ships.

whydah pirate museum cape cod

Clifford suspects this gold ring may have belonged to a former slave from Senegal who joined the Whydah’s crew.

674 Route 28, West Yarmouth, 508-534-9571,