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You are here: /main/research expeditions/May 2005/Day 1 Pearl and Hermes

Day 1, Pearl and Hermes Atoll
by Kelly Gleason, Maritime Archaeology Team

Documenting shipwreck sites at Pearl and Hermes

We work up this morning to a grey and drizzly day at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. You know you’ve been spoiled by these waters when people are grumbling that they’re cold in 75 degree ocean temperatures. As fish and coral teams headed out to conduct monitoring and tagging work, this was an especially exciting day for the maritime archaeology team. Exciting would actually be an understatement because I know that I speak for most of the team when I say that we have been anticipating this trip to Pearl and Hermes Atoll for several months. In September of 2004, NOAA NMFS Coral Reef Ecosystem Division’s Debris Removal Team came across the wreckage of a whaling shipwreck (or shipwrecks) at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. They reported the wrecksite to Hans Van Tilburg, the maritime heritage coordinator for the Pacific Islands Regional National Marine Sanctuary Program, and since last fall, a great deal of time has gone into preparing for this trip to begin to document and interpret these wrecks.

Wrecksites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are unlike those anywhere else in the world. Just as these waters are pristine and free of anthropogenic influences for fish and coral, the same is true for shipwreck sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. We are able to document and manage shipwreck sites that have been preserved by their remote locations, and still contain valuable evidence of our maritime heritage in this part of the world. Seeing these shipwrecks reminds us of how valuable these sites can be as tools for interpreting our past. The shipwreck site at Pearl and Hermes Atoll is still unidentified, however, it has been speculated to be the sites of the Pearl and the Hermes, two British whaling ships that were sailing in consort to the newly discovered Japan Whaling grounds in 1822. The Pearl ran aground first, and the Hermes made an attempt to assist and instead ran aground as well. These were the only two whaling ships reported lost at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, and so the artifacts discovered on the site last fall by the debris crew, which included iron trypots (used for boiling the whale fat), were major clues about the identity of these sites.

Our plan for the whaling shipwreck site is to thoroughly map the site, and establish a strategy for long term monitoring of the site. One of the first tasks for underwater archaeologists at a shipwreck site is laying down a baseline, similar to a transect through the site by which all artifacts and shipwreck features will be measured off of. Most shipwreck mapping projects take weeks, and some take months. This site is extensive enough that we would love to have that kind of time on this site. However, the nature of an interdisciplinary cruise to these remote areas has forced us to look at how we will map this site in a new way since our time is very limited at this atoll. We have looked to methodology that ecologists use in order to deal with the logistical challenges in this part of the world, and have applied a similar strategy by setting permanent datum points at the shipwreck site for long term monitoring purposes. Today at the site, we set these points and began detailed measurements and sketches of major artifacts at the site. This was an exciting day for the maritime archaeology team. It is so rare to come across a site so pristine and untouched. Whaling is a large part of the maritime history of this region, and to come across such an incredible example of this history is a reminder of why we’re so lucky that these heritage resources still exist in these untouched waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The human stories attached to shipwreck survival and rescue are an exciting dimension to the significance of all that has transpired in these waters for hundreds of years.




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