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You are here: /main/research/NWHI RAMP 2004/features/shipwrecks

Shipwrecks Discovered!

This story was compiled by Dan Suthers from the following sources: a radio interview conducted by Randy Kosaki of the crew of M/V Casitas who made the original discovery; a fact sheet provided by NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve communications staff; email from Hans Van Tilburg; and Rauzon's Isles of Refuge [1].

Note: The Federal Abandoned Shipwreck Act of 1987 grants the state title to abandoned vessels in state waters, and provides penalties for looting of submerged cultural resources.

As we make our way through the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) aboard the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) National Ocean Service (NOS) vessel Hi`ialakai and into the interior of atolls on her small launches, we have come to appreciate the danger that this region historically posed for maritime vessels, and indeed still poses today. In the middle of the Earth's largest ocean, one encounters shallow areas often with no land visible and little warning other than a narrow band of breakers on the horizon. Uncharted shallows still surround these atolls. A lapse in vigilance can lead to disaster.

Large anchor with diver nearbySuch a lapse apparently occurred here on April 24, 1822, when the British whaling ship Pearl, sailing with the ship Hermes, struck the reef of an atoll coincidentally bearing pearl beds. The Hermes went to the rescue of the Pearl, and was likewise grounded. All crew members survived, built a small vessel out of the wreckage of the two ships, and were eventually rescued, although very few details of how are known. Since then, the exact location of these wrecks has been a mystery for 182 years.

If the images shown here are indeed of the Pearl and/or the Hermes, this is the oldest wreck known in Hawaiian waters. Positive identification will require further work by marine archeologists, but the chances are good: the Pearl and Hermes are the only whalers recorded as being lost at this atoll.

In 2002, Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, Maritime Heritage Coordinator for the for the Pacific Islands Regional Office of the National Marine Sanctuaries Program (NMSP), joined the NOWRAMP 2002 expedition and surveyed known wrecks in the NWHI. (Links to his accounts of the voyage are provided at the end of this article.) He also looked briefly for new wrecks, including those of the Pearl and Hermes, but was unsuccessful in locating them. As he comments in one of his articles, systematic survey is needed to locate new wrecks. Such surveys are expensive, and sometimes marine archeologists have to rely on collaborations with others, and perhaps also on luck. This year, the two came together.

Marine debris such as discarded or lost fishing nets is a significant problem in the NWHI: debris can damage coral and entangle and drown marine mammals and birds. The NWHI Marine Debris Removal Program is a multi-agency effort involving many public and private partners, led by NOAA Fisheries since 1996 and funded by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program. Since marine debris divers spend substantial time in the region searching significant portions of the reefs for man-made artifacts, collaboration between debris divers and maritime archeologists is a natural fit. Acting on reports of small copper fasteners found in a nearby locale during a July 2003 marine debris expedition, Hans Van Tilburg provided the 2004 Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (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.

Large timbers with diver in backgroundThe shipwreck remains were first spotted by PIFSC/CRED marine debris specialists Mark Albins, Oliver Dameron and Susanna Holst working aboard the Casitas under the leadership of Jake Asher. Susanna spotted copper fasteners on the 10th of July 2004, and recognized that they were not modern. She said that they looked like "something we learned in class while training." The Casitas team decided to set aside a day for a survey when they had finished their work. They did not get an opportunity until the 20th of September. Susan, Oliver and Mark were the divers. It was a stormy day, and they were about to call off the search when Mark found the first wreck site, including 2 anchors and 4 cauldrons. Wooden timbers (shown above) were also found. In a radio interview conducted by Randy Kosaki from the Hi`ialakai, Mark said, "it was pretty exciting coming up over the spur and groove there and seeing those big pots in the sand ... especially considering the potential identification and age." Ollie added, "It shows you how cool the NWHI are and how much is left to be known and found out. It can be attributed to the isolation." The find was a huge morale booster for the crew of the Casitas, as they had been at sea for quite a while.

Randy snorkels by a large anchorNOAA research divers, led by Dr. Randy Kosaki, Co-Chief Scientist for the Hi‘ialakai research expedition and Research Coordinator for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve (NWHICRER),
joined the investigation effort and documented the site. All photos displayed on this page were taken by Darla White of this team. According to the NOAA fact sheet, "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." (Note: Labeling of the images on this page was provided by this writer, and should not be taken as definitive.)

The Casitas and the Hi`ialakai continue their work in the NWHI until mid-October. Watch this site for updates on this and other discoveries!

[1] Rauzon (2001)

See also these related NOWRAMP 2002 feature stories and journals by Hans Van Tilburg, "Dr. Shipwreck":

Talk About It!

Great Discovery!

Asked by Mark from marine endeavours on Oct 6, 2004.
Fantasic discovery finding the possible Pearl or Hermes whaling ship. This is the ultimate piece of marine debris! And a fine reward for your labors to clean up the atolls. Great work all!!

Answered by Paulo from University of Hawaii on Oct 9, 2004.

Yes, indeed, this is a great discovery, and it will be fascinating to follow up future research on this site. Thanks for your interest!


Ship Logs

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Satellite image of Pearl and Hermes Atoll

Satellite image of Pearl and Hermes Atoll



Post fastener?



Diver and cauldron

Diver and cauldron



Closeup of cauldron

Closeup of cauldron



Small round metal objects




Tong-like tool and fish




Large tong-like tool




Metal spikes on a sandy bottom




algae covered cannonballs





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