possibly found

If confirmed, it would
be the oldest discovery
in the Hawaiian chain

Divers in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands may have found the 182-year-old wrecks of one or both of the British whaling ships that gave Pearl and Hermes Atoll its name.

The discovery came Sept. 20 as divers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were removing marine debris from reefs on the atoll.

If the wreck is confirmed as being the Pearl, the Hermes or both, it would be the earliest Western shipwreck discovered in the Hawaiian Islands, said Hans Van Tilburg, maritime heritage coordinator for the Pacific Islands Regional Office of NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries Program.

"I don't have records for any other whalers being lost at that atoll," he said.

Van Tilburg, who is in Honolulu, said he was "really jealous" of the divers from the charter research ship Casitas and the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai who have been able to see the wreck firsthand. But he also was glad he gave them tips on what to look for in a shipwreck site before they left on their missions.

"I just think it's fantastic that they came across this extensive site," Van Tilburg said.

Items at the wreck site include anchors, trypots (cauldrons) used to process whale oil, metal hardware and even some of the wooden ship, all scattered over hundreds of yards.

"It's amazing how much of this vessel is still here after almost 200 years," Randy Kosaki, chief scientist on the Hi'ialakai, which is on its maiden research voyage.

Kosaki e-mailed from his ship that they had found "giant copper pots, nails, cannon, metal fittings, even wooden timbers remarkably preserved here in crystal clear water with giant ulua and knifejaws milling around."

The discovery will be left intact, in keeping with state and federal laws that prevent disturbance of shipwrecks.

Van Tilburg already planned to lead a marine archeology team on the next Hi'ialakai voyage in May, but his intended targets were other, already discovered wreck sites.

The possibility of examining the wrecks of the Pearl and Hermes -- the only recorded whaling ship wrecks on Pearl and Hermes Atoll -- has Van Tilburg excited. Already, fellow marine archeologists from the mainland are calling him about it.

Van Tilburg said that according to an 1876 article published in the Quaker magazine the Friend, the London whalers Pearl (with Capt. E. Clark) and Hermes (with Capt. J. Taylor) struck the reef that was later to be named after the ships on the night of April 24, 1822.

"The Pearl was first wrecked, and the Hermes ran down to look after her consort, when lo, she met a similar fate," the account said.

The combined crews made it safely to one of the atoll's small islands, salvaged provisions and timbers and eventually built a 30-ton schooner named Deliverance. A ship named Thames rescued the majority of the two ships' crews, although 12 survivors elected to sail the schooner they'd built back to Honolulu, according to the Friend.

Records indicate that the Hermes weighed 258 tons and the Pearl 327 tons. Both ships were probably about 100 feet long and would have had 30 to 40 crew members each.

Studying the remains of the presumed Pearl and Hermes ships will provide "a look at 19th-century material culture from a very early period for Westerners in the Pacific," Van Tilburg said.



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