What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
While researching the Trafalgar story in southern Spain, I went out on RPM Nautical's research ship called Hercules—owned by National Geographic expedition partner RPM Nautical—to search for the wrecks of the Spanish and French fleets off the coast of Cádiz.
It was a fantastic day: Lapis lazuli sky, glass-clear sea, no wind, and a magnificent view of the historic city of Cádiz as we pulled out to sea. I stood on the bow and stared down into the water, full of excitement. Somewhere below us, 130 feet (40 meters) down, lay the wreck of the Santissima Trinidad, the Spanish flagship at Trafalgar. Along with Nelson's Victory, she was the most famous ship of her time. "We can stay within a foot or two of the target," explained Captain Dave Mattingley, pointing at a bank of 11 computer screens on Hercules' bridge. "Today's the day."
Like a big yellow fish, National Geographic's ROV slowly nosed its way toward the seabed in search of the Santissima Trinidad. Tension mounted. Was today going to be the day, as Captain Dave had said? Were we about to get the first ever images of the Santissima Trinidad?
We weren't. As the ROV neared the bottom, the screen became a blizzard of brown dots, sediment from the Guadalquivir River. A few days later, we abandoned the search. We hadn't found the Santissima Trinidad, but it had been a wonderful day.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
Researching the story on Trafalgar was not like doing a piece on the Congo or the gangs of Los Angeles. But being out in the field on assignment always entails an element of danger.
After my trip to Cádiz, I drove to a place called Viso del Marquéz, birthplace of Spain's "winningest" admiral, Don Alvaro de Bazan. His former Renaissance palace is now home to Spain's naval archives: nine miles (15 kilometers) of papers documenting the administrative history of the Armada Espagnol from 1570 to 1900. With my Spanish assistant, Marita Prieto, I spent the day going through bundles of faded documents relating to the Spanish defeat at Trafalgar. It was a day spent in the company of death: lists of the dead and wounded; and letters from the widows of dead captains, begging for pensions eight years after the battle.After spending the day reading about the dead, we started the drive back to my hotel. On the highway north to Madrid, we came over a hill at high speed. Ahead of us, we saw an SUV on its roof, the occupants still hanging from their seat belts. I braked hard and managed to avoid the accident. But it was uncomfortably close.
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
On a blowy autumn day near Raglan on the Welsh-English border, I found Nelson's great-great-great granddaughter. Anna Tribe is a spry 75-year-old and one of 19 direct descendants of Horatia Nelson, the illegitimate daughter of Nelson and Emma Hamilton. "My grandmother had it," said Mrs. Tribe as we sat in the conservatory of her rambling country house, which she now runs as a bed and breakfast. "I've got it. My son, John, has got it. And my daughter has it tremendously." I thought she was talking about an illness or some obscure recessive gene. But in fact, she was talking about the human proboscis. "If you want to see the Nelson nose," she continued, "you'll have to meet my son."
Nelson's 42-year-old great-great-great-great grandson was in the next room playing a Bob Dylan song on the guitar. When he came in, I asked him to stand in profile. There it was, the Nelson nose. "He was a small man with big features," continued Mrs. Tribe. "Large lips, large eyes, and a very