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2006/ Day 22
The Dunnottar Castle – A Brand-New Discovery on the NWHI
Paulo Maurin, University of Hawaii
In collaboration with Dena Deck, Bellflower Unified School District, California
In consultation with Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, NOAA National Marine Sanctuary’s Maritime Heritage Program
One of the great joys of being in a place as remote as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is that
it offers the possibility of exploring… and discovering. It is the joy of coming to this place with
a mission agenda, and have unexpected additions to it. Last week, when we were at Kure Atoll, the
discovery of a sailing vessel wrecked for more than 100 years brought to us the sudden thrill and
excitement of exploration. This newly found vessel had it all – magnificently preserved structures,
records of its rescue mission, a link to Hawaiian history in the late 1800s, and a peculiar story
of its serendipitous discovery while we were in the area.
Dolphins from the large Kure Atoll pod. Photo: Paulo Maurin.
Cynthia Vanderlip, an experienced field researcher who has spent many years
returning to the atoll and conducting dolphin counts over time was conducting
surveys with the pod living in Kure’s lagoon, which includes over a hundred
members. On July 2, 2004 waters were calm; vision was pristine, with excellent
visibility. Her team had followed the dolphins to the opening of the atoll.
looking down in the mirror-like waters, Cynthia’s brother, Brad, a volunteer
for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, noticed a large wreck laying under their
boat, a wreck that even Cynthia not seen before.
It turned out that no one had seen it before. She notified the maritime archeologists onboard the NOAA
launch HI-1, who quickly checked out the site, and concurred in that it was a site even new to them.
The archeologists then invited the educators to check out this previously undiscovered site.
Large metal structures, showing the inside of the bottom hull
section of the ship. Photo: Paulo Maurin.
We felt extremely fortunate to be able to dive on a wreck the second day after it was discovered, after
120 years under the sea. Our group of educators reached the wreck site just a few hours after the maritime
archeologist had seen it for the first time since 1886. And the magnitude of the wreck was enough to
leave a lasting impression on novices like us, only recently introduced to the field of maritime
archeology. Normally, you see archeologists study at length the significance of many small pieces
that litter a wreck site. It is only their experience and combined work that can bring all those
numerous pieces together in a cohesive picture, a drawing that they arduously put together after
many hours of painstaking labor underwater. It is only in this drawing, which they do on a page
several feet long, that the rest of us can see all of the significant details.
But this wreck was a bit different. It laid there, in the seafloor in all of its immensity, in a manner
that fully displayed its former sailing glory. The Dunnottar Castle was a large ship – almost
260 feet in length – and was built in 1874. Home ported in Scotland, it was bound from Sydney, Australia
to Wilmington, California, with a load of coal. Because it struck the reef at full speed, it lodged
itself securely on the outside of the Kure Atoll.
Standing upright on one of its flukes, the anchor of the Dunnottar Castle
seems to have been carefully positioned on the seafloor. Photo: Paulo Maurin.
When free diving this wreck site, resting at a depth of about 25 feet, we could see much of the structures
still mirroring the original layout of the ship. Large metal frames rested on the bottom of the seafloor,
stretching for over a hundred feet of us. More than a century after its aquatic burial, the anchor, one
of the most emblematic pieces of any ship, was found laying upright on the sea floor.
Watching these metal pieces encrusted by corals and home to fish, it is easy to not think about the
historical context of the ship, and the wreck. But every wreck has a story, and the wreck of the
Dunnottar Castle story has links to the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Seven of the crew
members, including its Chief Officer, took one of the surviving boats and sailed, for 52 days, to Kauai.
Upon being informed of the tragedy, the British Commissioner in Honolulu organized a rescue mission.
But Hawaiian officials feared that the British might take the opportunity to claim Kure Atoll, and
offered to pay for part of the rescue mission, also sending a commissioner to claim it for
Hawaiian Kingdom. The concern over a British claim of Kure in relationship to the Dunnottar
Castle wreck adds meaning to its discovery on July 3, the day before America celebrates its independence.
Another large section of the Dunnottar Castle, now home
to a lively marine ecosystem. Photo: Paulo Maurin.
The rescue mission came back to Honolulu with the same amount of people it had
sailed out with. No survivors were found on the atoll, except for two fox
terriers and a retriever. Maritime archeology,
unlike the terrestrial counterpart, almost always involves a tragic event. But
there was no further
tragedy on the Dunnottar Castle. All of the survivors had been picked
up earlier by a passing vessel and were on route to Chile. Upon arrival, on
September 20, 1886, Kure Atoll was claimed for
the Kingdom of Hawai`i by James Boyde. To help future castaways, this rescue
mission built a structure and left water and supplies, and also planted coconuts,
kukui trees, monkey pod trees,
and others. Concerns about introducing alien species did not run very high back
When free-diving this wreck, we felt the thrill of seeing a ship larger than the one which is now our
home at sea, the NOAA ship Hi`ialakai, laid on the ocean floor as if it had been arranged by careful
museum curators. A Galapagos shark was seen later on the wreck area, reminding us that this is no
museum. This is Kure Atoll, part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that still offer much left