I was born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 2, 1949, and grew up in the suburb of Munster, Indiana. I was the middle of three children, with an older brother and a younger sister. I was a very shy little girl.
I enjoyed going to school and always wanted to know more. I read almost anything I could get my hands on, usually finished a book a day.
People often ask me, whether my interest in searching for buried items started in my childhood. The answer is yes. My earliest memory of finding “treasure” is when I was around four years old. I loved wandering down the alley, poking through the wire bins that held the burnt ashes of burned garbage. One day I pulled out a small brass perfume bottle. I’ve kept it to this day.
As I grew older my mother wanted me to join the swim team, I did as she asked and won all of my races. Though I loved swimming and being in the water, I hated competition and so I quit the team. But my love to water would serve me well in the years to come.
A New Life
At that time all I wanted to do was leave! I got the chance to live with my uncle in Florida for my last year of high school but it turned out to be less perfect than I had hoped. So I decided to leave school and to move to California. Though I did get a high school diploma a few years later by taking a test, it hurt my parents to see me go.
In California I lived on a sailboat for two years. To make money, I painted boats for wealthy people in the area. Down the road there was a tropical fish store and I asked the owner where he got the fish from, he said: “Oh, people can catch them and send them to me.” And I thought, that’s what I want to do. The best place to find tropical fish in the United States are Florida and Hawaii. And so, I returned to the Florida Keys and began diving with a group of people who collected and sold fish.
Because there weren’t any training classes at the time, I learned to dive as I went along. We sold the fish mainly to aquariums and pet stores around the US and Canada.
After I had been diving for a while, a friend asked me to help him rescue a large boat that was stuck on a reef. After five days we got the freighter off the reef and sent it on its way. That was my first rescue, or salvage job. Though the work was hard, I learned a great deal.
Fossils Big and Small
During a dive in the Dominican Republic in the mid-1970s, I took a day trip with friends to an amber mine in the mountains. A miner showed me an insect preserved in amber. I was fascinated. It looked like it had just been put in the amber, yet it was 23 million years old. That was my introduction to fossils.
The Find of a Lifetime
And now we’ve come to a real star – the T. rex named SUE. She is, I am certain, the greatest discovery I will ever make. And I owe it all to a flat tire.
As you might imagine, SUE was a hard act to follow. I knew there would never be another find like her for me. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t try. After all, I plan to do this kind of work until I’m at least 200 years old! Believe it or not, just two years after finding SUE, I found myself on another once-in-a-lifetime discovery. I call it “the SUE of shipwrecks”.
What Lies Ahead
As you can probably tell, my life has mostly been about my freedom to explore. Being able to go wherever the next project takes me – and not knowing where that might be! – is as important to me as breathing. As far as the future holds, I’m not sure I’ll be able to fit in all that I want to do. I’d like for example to travel to Siberia one day, to search for an ancient woolly mammoth. And, of course, there are still more dinosaurs to be found. I feel I owe it to the world to give something back. In the last few years I have been spending substantial time working on protecting the environment on the island Guanaja Honduras fighting the destruction of some very fragile and important ecological sites.
Furthermore I am the amateur veterinarian for the animals on the island and have trained two of my workers to care for sick animals. It's very important to me to do everything I can for the people and animals of the island. And by paying for young people in places like Peru, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic to go to high school and college, I know I am helping to make a difference.
Never lose your curiosity about everything in the universe – it can take you to places you never thought possible!
More about Sue Hendrickson
- December 2, 1949 in Chicago, Illinois
- French (American borne and raised)
- Professional diver since 1971
- Specialist in field work in paleontology (dinosaurs)
- Specialist in the fossil inclusions in amber (Dominican Republic / Mexico)
- Many years of experience in marine archaeology (Franck Goddio Team)
- Explorer's Club, New York
- Paleontological Society
- Society for Historical Archaeology
- President's Panel for Ocean Exploration 2000
- Honorary PhD from University of Illinois, Chicago in 2000
- Medal of Honor from Barnard University (Columbia University) in 2002
- Glamour Magazine's Ten Women of the Year Award 2000
- Women of Discovery Award Winner in 2005 (Wings Worldquest, New York)