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By Dr. Hans Van Tilburg
In June and July of 2006 a team of six maritime archaeologists
from NOAA’s Maritime
Heritage Program will embark upon the second maritime heritage
expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands aboard
the NOAA R/V Hi’ialakai. During the 28-day research
expedition, the team will return to several known shipwreck
sites at Kure and Pearl and Hermes Atolls. The team’s work in June
and July will continue the systematic survey, documentation
and interpretation of these unique maritime heritage resources.
Maritime archaeologists have only just begun to uncover
hundreds of years of seafaring history in these remote
atolls where approximately 120 vessels and aircraft have
been reported lost.
The NWHI are a remote and challenging location to conduct a research expedition.
Weather, research vessel time constraints, and the complications of working in a
dynamic reef environment all contribute to the need for special planning for
maritime heritage expeditions to the NWHI. Pacific Islands Region maritime
archaeologists are beginning to establish a protocol for annual underwater
archaeological survey at these and other remote sites, as well as develop a
better understanding of the environmental processes relative to the spur
and groove topography and wave action at these coral atolls. Continued
research in 2006 will help maritime archaeologists understand the way
that these atolls influence the formation of shipwreck sites hundreds
of years after their loss.
The research expedition aboard the NOAA R/V Hi’ialakai begins
at Kure Atoll, the furthest east from the main Hawaiian islands,
and one of the last locations to be
accurately and precisely located by mariners. This low treacherous
atoll, with no historic aids to navigation, possesses seven
documented ship wrecks. The expedition
will begin with six days of dive operations planned for the
maritime archaeology team at Kure Atoll. Rough weather in 2005
limited the team’s work to the calmer
waters of the lagoon inside the atoll, which facilitated the
documentation of the bow section of a 19th century whaleship
thought to be the remains of the
Parker, lost in 1842. In the 2006 expedition, divers plan to
return to the site of the USS Saginaw, first discovered by
a team of maritime archaeologists
in 2003. The story of the Saginaw and the open ocean rescue
voyage has become legacy in the US Navy, and tells an amazing
story of survival at sea.
In 1870, the USS Saginaw, a fourth-rate gunboat, was returning a small group of Boston
hard hat divers from Midway Atoll to San Francisco. They had spent six months on the
barren island attempting to open a channel into the lagoon for the use of steam ships
in the Pacific. Lieutenant Commander Montgomery Sicard, deciding to check nearby Ocean
Island (Kure) for castaways, set course to the west at a stately three knots, planning
on arriving after daybreak. His navigation was dead on, but (unaware of the local
currents) the Saginaw went onto the coral reef at 3:00 AM. Ninety-three of her crew
were stranded for two months, while five volunteers set sail in the captain’s modified
gig for Honolulu. The 31-day open ocean crossing covered some 1,500 nautical miles in
heavy weather. The sailors were emaciated and weakened when their boat moved onto the
fringing reef on Kauai. Four of them, including Lieutenant John Gunnel Talbot,
died in the surf on the north shore. The sole survivor, coxswain William Halford,
staggered ashore and passed out from loss of blood. Revived the next day, he
immediately notified both the US Minister and King Lot Kamehameha V, the last direct
descendant of Kamehameha the Great, of his shipmates’ plight. The opportunity to
further document this site, and interpret the material remains of this historic
vessel of the “old steam navy” is an exciting aspect of this research expedition
to the NWHI. Maritime archaeologists hope that further study of the USS Saginaw
site will uncover a more complete view of the entire shipwreck and complete the
fascinating story of the Saginaw survival story.
Following work at Kure Atoll, the maritime heritage team will continue with six more
days of dive operations at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, home to two of the oldest shipwrecks
so far discovered in Hawaiian waters. Pearl and Hermes Atoll has the distinction to be
named after the wrecks of the sister ships Pearl and Hermes, British whalers. The 262-ton
Hermes ran aground on the unseen reef on the 26th of April at about 4:00 AM, and the
320-ton Pearl (actually an American-built ship captured by the British in the War of 1812)
ran aground nearby a few minutes later, reportedly about a quarter mile to the east.
Both were stuck fast and eventually broken on the sharp coral. The combined crew totaling 57
souls were castaway with what meager provisions they could salvage on a nearby island for months.
One of the carpenters on board the Hermes, James Robinson, supervised the building of a small
30-ton schooner named Deliverance on the beach. Though most of the crew elected to board the
passing ship Earl of Morby, Robinson and 11 others were able to recoup some of their financial
losses from the wreck by taking possession of the nearly finished Deliverance, sailing her
back to Honolulu, and eventually selling her there for $2,000. From there Robinson went on
to found the highly successful James Robinson and Company shipyard in 1827 and became an
influential member of the island community.
NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Division marine debris first discovered the whaling shipwrecks
at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 2004 when divers found numerous trypots (cauldrons for
boiling whale oil), anchors, bricks (from the tryworks structure on deck), whaling
implements, fasteners, copper sheathing, cannon, and other hardware scattered on,
around, and even under the shallow coral reefs of the atoll. Though a positive
identification has yet to be made, the only records of whaling ships lost at
Pearl and Hermes Atoll are, indeed, the British registered whalers Pearl and Hermes
themselves (for which the atoll has been named), vessels of the South Seas Whaling
Industry based in London.
The Pearl and the Hermes may be the only vessels of the British South Seas Whaling
Industry ever discovered in an archaeological context. These are the oldest shipwrecks
yet discovered in the Hawaiian Islands. Yet relatively little is known of the
construction of the vessels themselves, and only a few tantalizing clues exist
as to the tragic events on the coral reef and small sandy island at the distant atoll.
Further site work in 2006 may tell us more about this event and provide a window
into our historic maritime past. Archival search, as well as collaborative
interpretive work at London’s Dockyard Museum, the New Bedford Whaling Museum,
and elsewhere, is currently underway. In 2005, the maritime archaeology team
used a combination of permanent datums, baseline trilateration, digital photography
and GPS positioning to generate data for site plans and artifact interpretation.
The same research design will continue in 2006 to fully document and interpret
these unique sites.
Work to fully identify and interpret these sites has just begun. The whaling shipwrecks
at Pearl and Hermes Atoll contribute to the story of an important era in Hawaiian
history when the whaling industry expanded American commerce to the far reaches of the
globe and led ships through the remote atolls of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
These are rare sites, glimpses into our past, and deserve our best survey and
preservation efforts. Work in 2006 will focus on further documentation of these sites
in greater detail. A complete study of these sites, however, will take several years
due to the limited time allowed at each site in such a remote location.
There is little doubt that the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands possess some of the most
unspoiled and productive natural reef systems in the North Pacific Ocean. These
islands and atolls, due to their isolation, are natural reserves for ecosystem
diversity, and their intelligent management is of critical concern. There is also
little doubt that the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands possess a rich maritime history
and abundant maritime heritage resources. These locations witnessed a variety of
Hawaiian and Pacific vessels and activities, such as guano mining, fishing, copra
traders, Japanese sampans, transpacific colliers, whaling vessels, and the local
wreckers or salvage companies from the main Hawaiian Islands. Submerged maritime
resources in the NWHI make up the material record of this past. Their study,
interpretation and protection ensure that generations to come are able to understand
and appreciate the fascinating stories and valuable lessons that these shipwrecks tell
us about life and peril at sea, and the influence of seafaring history upon the Pacific