Date:                 September 29, 2004

Fact Sheet:    NOAA Divers Discover Historic Whaler Artifacts in NWHI Reserve

Contact:          Naomi Sodetani, NWHICRER (808) 397-2666, (808) 348-9427 (cell)



The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration¹s (NOAA) Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve (NWHICRER) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED)


19th-century whaling shipwreck discovered off Pearl and Hermes Atoll

in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — probably the remains of British whalers lost in 1822, the namesakes of the atoll



³This is an exciting chance to investigate our maritime heritage in the Pacific. NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries Program considers historic wreck sites such as this as valuable heritage resources from which we learn about our own past.

The discovery of these artifacts highlights the uniqueness of the NWHI and demonstrates the cooperation between programs to preserve our resources. We¹re grateful for the versatile skills of NMFS¹ marine debris dive teams, to further Œdetective work¹ on this rare site.²


Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, Maritime Heritage Coordinator

for the Pacific Islands Regional Office of the

National Marine Sanctuaries Program


³It¹s amazing how much of this vessel is still here after almost 200 years. Giant copper pots, nails, cannon, metal fittings, even wooden timbers remarkably preserved here in crystal clear water with giant ulua and knifejaws milling around.²


Dr. Randy Kosaki, Chief Scientist for HiŒialakai research cruise

and Research Coordinator for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve (NWHICRER)


€ Artifacts indicating the remains of one or possibly two early 19th-century whaling ships were discovered amid the coral reefs off Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Islands by divers engaged in a NOAA-organized marine debris removal mission.


€ The finding of major shipwreck artifacts in this area is highly significant, as they likely signal the remains of one or both British whalers, the Pearl and the Hermes, documented as lost in that area in 1822. Both vessels ran aground on the same reef, the atoll later named after the two vessels to mark the calamitous event.


€ If the site is positively identified as belonging to the Pearl and/or Hermes, it will signify the earliest western shipwreck discovered in the Hawaiian islands. There are no records for any other whaling losses at the atoll.


€ The Pearl, sailing with the ship Hermes in pursuit of whales, struck the reef first on the night of April 24, 1822. The Hermes rushed to help, but met the same fate. All crew members survived, swam ashore to a nearby island, from which they were later rescued. Very little else is known about the event. The wrecks have remained unseen at Pearl and Hermes Atoll for 182 years. Hawaiians often enlisted as crew on board the Pacific whaling fleet.


€ Found artifacts include: cannon and cannonballs, large iron anchors, large trypots (cauldrons used to process the whale oil on deck), bricks from the tryworks structure for the trypots, gaffs and whalecraft used in hunting and processing whales, pintles or bronze hardware attached to the rudder, copper fasteners/spikes, and copper sheathing which lined the lower hull. In addition, the surrounding fore reef appears to contain wooden sections of the ship itself. The area of wreck debris is scattered over a span of hundreds of meters wide.


€ The discovery by a contingent of marine debris removal specialists surfaced as part of a coordinated effort involving NOAA¹s Maritime Heritage Program, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, the National Marine Fisheries Services (NOAA Fisheries) Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) and its Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (CRED).


€ Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, maritime heritage coordinator for the NMSP, provided the PIFSC/CRED debris removal crew with background information on potential shipwreck sites and briefed the divers on how to identify and document artifacts encountered opportunistically during clean-up activities. The recent discovery follows up on initial indications of a few small copper fasteners found in a nearby locale during a July 2003 marine debris expedition.


€ NOAA¹s Maritime Heritage Program is dedicated to the protection of historic shipwrecks and other submerged sites within sanctuary boundaries. The program seeks to increase the public awareness of America¹s maritime heritage by conducting scientific research, monitoring, exploration and educational programs.


€ Known for its low and poorly charted reefs and atolls, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands possess over 120 known vessel and aircraft losses dating from prehistoric to modern times. Only a handful has yet been surveyed. Research in the NWHI region is supported by NOAA¹s growing fleet of research vessels based in HawaiŒi.


€ PIFSC/CRED marine debris specialists Mark Albins, Oliver Dameron and Susanna Holst were the divers who spotted and photographed the shipwreck remains at Pearl and Hermes Atoll on September 20.


€ The site is now in process of being further surveyed by NOAA research divers with PIFSC/CRED and NWHICRER. NWHICRER scientists aboard the National Ocean Service research vessel HiŒialakai were midway into a 35-day maiden research cruise mapping and monitoring marine ecosystems throughout the reserve when they arrived at Pearl and Hermes and joined the site investigation effort.


€ Marine debris removal in the NWHI is a multi-agency effort involving many public and private partners, led by NOAA Fisheries since 1996. Areas surveyed to date include Pearl and Hermes, Midway, Kure, Lisianski, and French Frigate Shoals.


€ The HiŒialakai returns to Honolulu on October 17. The debris removal expedition aboard the research vessel Casitas follows the following day.


€ The newly discovered whaling wreck site lies within State of HawaiŒi waters and is protected by federal and state preservation laws from disturbance. The State Historic Preservation Division, Department of Land and Natural Resources, was immediately notified of the site discovery.


€ State and NMSP Maritime Heritage Program archaeologists are interested in voyaging to the site to conduct further identification and investigation activities in coming months.



On the Web:

More information on NOAA¹s Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve and ongoing research efforts can be found at More information on the NMSP¹s Pacific Islands Regional Office maritime archaeology research can be found at More information on the National Marine Fisheries Service¹s marine debris removal effort can be found at More information on the State Historic Preservation Division