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Ship Logs

Shipwreck Team Headed South
Posted by Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, Maritime Archaeology and History Team Leader
October 3, 2002

Starbord side of Landing Craft.  Photo by Suzanne S. Finney.Today we transit from Lisianski back to French Frigate Shoals. Most of our target areas are to the north, so the bulk of the field work is behind us. It's been an incredible experience. We have had the opportunity to record the remains of 16 different known and unknown vessels, 14 separate anchors, and two aircraft crash sites. These include steel fishing vessels, navy ships, landing craft, merchant freighters, bamboo rafts, World War II fighter planes, and large wooden sailing ships from the 19th century. Many of these shipwrecks are well preserved due to their isolation, and all open a window on our maritime past in the Pacific.

The power of the ocean to reshape the wreck map is one of the most impressive lessons from the cruise. Some of the larger steel wrecks are simply not where they've been reported. Others have had large heavy sections pushed around the lagoons like toys. Prevailing wind and currents, storm frequency and wave height, sedimentation rates and coral growth...all of these are major environmental factors which affect site formation processes for shipwrecks. Pieces of ships, whatever their size, cannot be said to be permanent features of the seascape. They may "wreck" once, twice, or three times on different parts of the reef. In this sense, large modern wrecks represent multiple threats to the environment. The stern of the Houei Maru (wrecked in 1976) is the best example of this. It now lies miles from the remains of the rest of the vessel; it wasn't there last year.

Houei Maru #5 Shipwreck at Kure Atoll.On the flip side of the coin, wreck sites provide multiple habitat and substrate opportunities for marine flora and fauna. They are artificial reefs of an unintentional nature. Monk seals find refuge from sharks, small fish find refuge from jacks, and certain algae seem to thrive in the iron-rich areas adjacent to wrecks. Marine habitats, environmental threats, or historical and archaeological sites...wreck sites present multiple characteristics in relationship to the environment and resource management. The NOWRAMP cruise represents one of the rare times that these kinds of sites have been granted official recognition in this state.

What lies ahead? The summary report of the survey needs to be completed. Data from the field needs to be cross-checked with information from local archives, particularly for the older wreck sites. Are we looking at the ship Gledstanes which sank in 1837? The whaleship Parker in 1842? Recommendations for the future management of submerged cultural resources in the NWHI will be included in the report. One of the special characteristics of these distant sites is that they are unlooted, the physical record is much more intact. Hopefully they will stay that way. This is something almost unheard of for the known wreck sites in the Main Hawaiian Islands, despite the protections guaranteed by federal law.

Kaiyo Maru wreck on Laysan Island.We had only enough time to glimpse a portion of the more significant wreck sites during this quick trip. The remains of the Carrollton at Midway and the remains of the large unknown wooden ship at Kure are just the tips of the iceberg, so to speak. These are a couple of the older and more intriguing targets. Much more lies beneath the sands, and sites like these warrant more intensive investigation.

Who will be available to carry this out? It remains to be seen if there will be a local agency or academic program that will continue this kind of research in Hawai‘i. Certainly there is abundant opportunity in our nearshore waters. The Hawaiian Islands are an ideal setting for underwater exploration and discovery. Anyone interested in becoming part of this new field in the Pacific should contact the shipwreck team ASAP. Mahalo.

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