Maritime researchers say the waters around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are full of shipwrecks and aircraft crash sites waiting to be discovered and studied. At top is the Houei Maru No. 5 shipwreck at Kure Atoll.

Shipwreck census

Maritime archaeologists search the
Northwestern Hawaiian Isles for vessels
that may add to history books

A list of Shipwrecks

By Diana Leone

When maritime archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg heard there was room for more researchers on a scientific expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, he did not hesitate.

"It was the chance of a lifetime to tag along on an expedition and to do a historic survey of wreck sites," he said.

His documentation during the September voyage of 16 shipwrecked vessels, 16 ship anchors and two aircraft crash sites was the first of its kind in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and one of few maritime archaeology surveys ever done in the Hawaiian Islands as a whole, he said.

A few of those wreck sites were entirely new finds, although his main goal was to document known sites.

One of the most impressive finds was the remains of a large wooden sailing ship in a lagoon at Kure Atoll, the farthest away of the small, uninhabited islands that extend 1,200 miles northwest from Kauai.

The vessel could be the Gledstanes, a British whaling ship lost in 1837, or the Parker, also a British whaler lost in 1842. Or it could be another ship, one not recorded as lost, said Van Tilburg, who received his doctorate in maritime archaeology from the University of Hawaii in June and is a history lecturer there.

Van Tilburg's work was one of many projects during the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program voyage, a cooperative effort among government agencies and university research scientists to learn more about the Northwest Isles.

Much of the information gathered will be used by the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve as it applies for national marine sanctuary status.

"Maritime archeology, culture and history are important components of all national marine sanctuaries," said reserve coordinator Robert Smith. "We are committed to supporting research and exploration that will lead to increased understanding and protection of submerged artifacts found within water of this remote region."

Van Tilburg's team for the expedition included Suzanne Finney, a doctorate student in anthropology at UH-Manoa, and Marc Hughes, a marine science major at UH-Hilo.

For several months before the voyage, Van Tilburg scoured historic records for mention of ships that were lost in the Northwestern Isles. He also talked to scientists who had made research trips to the islands, to see if they could direct him to potential wreck sites.

At least 50 ships are known to have wrecked in the Northwestern Islands.

On the voyage, Van Tilburg, Finney and Hughes divided the underwater work. Hughes took algae samples and documented marine life among the wrecks. Finney took underwater videos. Van Tilburg took photos and measured for aerial-view sketches of the larger wrecks, called site plan views.

Sometimes they snorkeled, sometimes they used scuba gear, depending on the location. Most days they spent four or five hours underwater, looking for clues of a shipwreck, Van Tilburg said. On days when there were no dive sites available, they walked the edges of the islands, looking for shipwreck debris.

An anchor from a wooden shipwreck at Kure.

The challenge of spotting wreckage grows greater the farther back in time the wreck occurred. There is scarcely ever any wood remaining from old vessels, Van Tilburg said, so the team looked for pieces of metal that survived the physical and chemical assault of the sea.

Among the things Van Tilburg watched for: copper fasteners that held wooden planks together, anchors and anchor chains, and kettles to render whale blubber on whaling ships.

"It can be scattered on the bottom, and it can be covered with coral growths. If we see something suspicious, we hold our diver's compass to it and see if it moves," he said, which shows that there is iron there.

"When you're looking for wrecks, you look for what looks like pieces of plumbing" on the ocean floor, Van Tilburg said.

No objects were retrieved from the wrecks, because the team did not have permits to do so and because Van Tilburg wants to first complete noninvasive studies before considering removal. If buried-at-sea objects are taken from the ocean, he said, "as soon as they get into oxygen, they begin a new deterioration" and must be preserved with archival techniques.

If Van Tilburg can raise funds to return for further study, he would like to look more at the wooden sailing vessel at Kure Atoll, he said.

With the information that a wreck might be in a certain area of Kure, Van Tilburg recalled, "We jumped in the water and saw the wreck ... several anchors, some stacked on top of each other as they would have been in the bow of the ship, anchor chains, deck machinery, rigging, artifacts, copper sheathing and large copper hoops, about 2 feet in diameter, that would have gone around the masts."

The whalers the Parker and the Gledstanes, either of which the ship might be, both had survivors, Van Tilburg said. After some months they cobbled together a vessel from their ship's remains and sailed to the main Hawaiian Islands for help rescuing the other survivors.

Another big find was the USS Macaw, a submarine rescue vessel sunk in 1944 at Midway Atoll.

The Macaw was on a mission to retrieve the submarine USS Flier when a storm blew the Macaw aground on a Midway reef on Feb. 13, 1944.

Because the Navy's priority at the time was rescuing the submarine, the Macaw was allowed to sit on the reef east of the Midway Channel for about a month. A skeleton crew stayed aboard to maintain pumps that kept the damaged ship from filling with water, Van Tilburg said.

But a March storm buffeted the vessel with huge waves. "About 20 crew were left on board, taking shelter in the pilot housing," Van Tilburg said. "They had closed all the ports, and the air started to go bad," so the men started leaping into the water. Five died, and 15 were later rescued from Eastern Island.

Now, Van Tilburg said, Macaw is an underwater expanse of "240 or 250 feet of twisted steel," with sea life abundant throughout the wreck.

Though born in New Jersey, Van Tilburg had a Hawaii connection even before moving here in 1996 to pursue a UH doctorate. His mother, Mina Lee Van Tilburg, is from a local Chinese family, and he was frequently sent to spend summers with Hawaii relatives.

Fourteen years after getting his undergraduate degree, Van Tilburg said he "caught the disease" of maritime archaeology and history as a graduate student at East Carolina University.

Much of the work in the field has been done in the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, Van Tilburg said. Wrecks in Hawaii and the entire Pacific are just waiting to be discovered, he said.

"Hawaii's submerged cultural resources have barely begun to be explored," said David Chappell, a UH-Manoa associate professor of Pacific Island history. "It takes an experienced underwater archeologist like Dr. Van Tilburg to realize that and try to raise other people's consciousness about it."

Smithsonian Institution maritime archeologist Paul Johnston agreed that Hawaii and the Pacific are underexplored.

"You can learn about history and life ways by studying these wrecks," said Johnston, who spent five years doing underwater archaeology work on Cleopatra's Barge, a vessel of Kamehameha II that sank in Hanalei Bay in 1824.


Shipwreck list

Maritime archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg and his team confirmed the following shipwrecks, aircraft wrecks and anchor sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in September. (Listed by proximity to the nearest island, beginning with those closest to the main Hawaiian Islands and going northwest.)


>> Three 20th-century anchors, southeast of island.


>> Very old iron artifacts embedded in reef, indicates possible wreck of unknown date.


>> A twin-screw amphibious landing craft used during and after World War II.
>> A submersible lifting pontoon, used in modern salvage work.
>> Three large anchors of unknown date.


>> Kaiyo Maru No. 25, a Japanese fishing vessel lost in 1969.
>> Iron debris and fouled anchors, which may be the remains of the Hawaiian schooner CC Kennedy, lost in 1905.
>> Remnants of a bamboo raft that could have been a fish-attracting device.
>> Five anchors of the 19th and 20th centuries.


>> Remains of the SS Quartette, a 20th-century steel freighter.
>> Remains of a modern six-cylinder marine diesel engine, shaft, propellor and rigging.
>> Remnants of another bamboo raft.


>> The USS Macaw, a Navy submarine rescue vessel, lost in 1944.
>> The Carrollton, a wooden bark used for carrying coal from Australia to San Francisco, lost in 1906.
>> An F4U Corsair aircraft.
>> A modern steel barge.
>> A small amphibious landing craft.
>> Four anchors, of 19th and 20th centuries.
>> Unexploded ordnance.


>> Large and very old wooden sailing ship, possibly the Gledstanes (lost in 1837), the Parker (lost in 1842) or an unrecorded ship.
>> Large piece of naval aircraft, probably a World War II-era Corsair.
>> Bow section of a modern steel fishing boat.
>> Houei Maru No. 5, a steel Japanese vessel, lost in 1976.
>> Three anchors, 19th century

To get involved

Maritime archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg, archaeologist Suzanne Finney and maritime archeology doctoral student Don Froning have formed a nonprofit organization to seek funding for more maritime archaeology research in Hawaii. Maritime Archaeology and History of the Hawaiian Islands can be reached at

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