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Ship Logs

The Surface Betrays
Written by Carlos Eyles

Underwater Photography by Jim Watt
September 21, 2002

I am up at 7am Honolulu time, 6am Midway time. The full moon is low in the west illuminating what little is left of the night. The sun battles the darkness in its universal struggle, setting small fires to the dawn's sky. Sitting as we are at the dock there is not much to report in the way of wind or swell, none. There was a small party given in the expedition's behalf last night at the home of Tim Bodeen, the Head of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge here on Midway. I was tired and went to bed rather than attend and had the first full nights sleep since we left Honolulu.

Macaw wreck at Midway.We dove on a wreck yesterday, the Macaw, a submarine rescue vessel launched in 1942. Her story* was not unlike most shipwrecks, she went to rescue a submarine on February 13, 1944, the USS Flyer who ran aground on a reef next to the channel. She got into position to pull the sub off and she herself goes on the reef. Later they eventually get the Flyer off the reef but they can't get the Macaw. A storm blows in and builds seas of thirty feet. The men stayed on board for fear of losing them in the transfer and night had fallen. The vessel began to list to starboard, and looked like it was going to capsize. All hands were forced to take to the masts or jump into the sea. They did both, and abandoned ship, some were found clear across the channel. They managed to pluck all but the Captain and four enlisted men who perished. Many months later the Navy set charges and demolished the Macaw.

To see a ship at rest beneath the sea is to see many things. An archeologist sees it as history, a photographer sees it as an opportunity to capture a spectacular image, a family of the crew, or the ship builder might see it as a tomb, but in the end it is debris that the ocean has swallowed up. I found an interesting juxtaposition between the underwater terrain and that of Midway Island, the two were in many ways a storehouse for military debris and junk. In both instances they existed everywhere, on land the debris was sequestered into specific areas, in the ocean it was strewn far and wide across the ocean floor. From one point of view man's debris does provide a plethora of homes for marine life that is forever looking to upgrade its residential standing and thus does make the most of the wreckage in that regard. However at the crux of the debris issue rests a dilemma that faces all oceans and seas everywhere, which is basically everything is hidden. All mistakes covered up, all failures disposed of, all schemes buried. I suppose that's why a hit man will throw his weapon in the sea, or the victim for that matter. He knows the odds of finding either are better than breaking the wheel in Vegas. But of course it goes far deeper than what the fathoms can hide. Great damage is done; invertebrates are stunned to death by pesticides, fish are taken in nets as large as a city block leaving grand gaps where schools once resided, empty caves remain where once lobster by the score lived for decades, dolphins disappear into the nets of tuna fishermen, whales are snatched from the deep for reasons I still cannot fathom.

Midway marine debris.The grand irony, the death knell for the ocean is that no matter what is tossed in, buried or sunk, the surface always appears untouched, serene, and healthy as ever. In the last five years a multi-agency partnership has removed well over a hundred tons of debris in the NWHI alone. This is thought to represent only a small percentage of all the debris still clinging to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands shorelines and reefs. The ocean has become the garbage dump for every civilization on the planet. Yet children still go the beach and play, sailboats still race along on a broad reach, and surfers still catch their waves, fisherman still fish and divers still dive. In the doing few comment on the water as anything other than a beautiful place with plenty of life. The surface is always as it has been, and thus all is well. The problem is obvious and disastrous for the oceans and seas; we can't see the damage, and so don't feel outraged, or sad, or even disturbed; all is well. If we could see the devastation, as those in the mountains are able to see a clear cut of its timber, or the death of a river, or the diminishing herds of elk, if we could at least see what is going on beneath the surface then perhaps steps would be taken, politicians alerted, responsibility assessed, and appropriate action taken. But it is not. We have to rely on the scientists to tell us what is going on in the ocean, but their warnings often go unheeded, or are bogged down by political bureaucracy. It seems that only the passions conjured out of the direct experience has the teeth to carry the force of the message. In the end the oceans in their desperate peril have only the data of the scientists. Thus far the cold facts are often not enough to sway the world and dispel the notion that all is well. In order for the seas to survive our misdeeds we need to probe the fathoms of ourselves and provide trust and support for those who have committed their lives to the preservation of the ocean, it is a very small tribe doing all that they can to reveal our catastrophes and begin the healing. The surface of the ocean is its worst enemy; it needs all the friends it can get.

*Macaw history from Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, Maritime Archaeology and History dive team leader

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