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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 6, 2002

Scientists to study islands' sea wrecks

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

A scientific expedition into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands during the next month will include studying more than 50 shipwrecks scattered across the reefs and shoals.

The history of wrecks is part of the fascinating but not well-known story of the 1,200-mile-long string of islands that extends to the west-northwest of Kaua'i, all the way to Midway and Kure Atoll.

Most of the recent wrecks have been fishing boats, operating close to the shallows in search of the rich marine life of the seamounts, coral beds and neighboring waters. But ships of all kinds — from feather collectors to whalers to explorers — have been crashing on the isolated reefs for two centuries.

Many of them have never been well documented.

University of Hawai'i maritime archaeologist and historian Hans Van Tilburg, working with two of his students, plans to seek out several of the wrecks whose locations are generally known.

"We don't have the equipment to do a full survey," he said.

Van Tilburg and his team will join other scientists in the second Northeastern Hawaiian Islands Reef Ecological Assessment and Monitoring Program, a four-week effort that leaves Honolulu Sunday aboard the ships Rapture and Townsend Cromwell. Researchers will study not only the natural history of the the chain, but the human history through examination of the wrecks.

Federal officials hope to convert the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve into a national marine sanctuary, said reserve coordinator Robert Smith. One of the goals of these sanctuaries is to give "focus to the historical and cultural resources that may be under the water," he said.

The first known wreck in the region was the Russian sailing ship "Neva," which hit a reef in 1805 while under the command of Capt. Urey Lisiansky. The Neva was floated again, but only after throwing a lot of its heavy gear over the side to lighten the ship. Some of that gear, including cannons, may still lie on the reef, Van Tilburg said.

Later wrecks included the "Pearl" and the "Hermes." Neva, Pearl, Hermes and Lisianski — a modern respelling of Lisiansky—are all now names of reefs and islands in the archipelago.

Van Tilburg said there are so many wrecks because the archipelago represents such a dangerous area. It has extensive, low reefs with few lights, and it lies in the trade route between the Islands and Asia.

At French Frigate Shoals, the rock known as La Perouse Pinnacle is covered with white guano and from a distance or in moonlight can look like a full-rigged sailing ship.

"A lookout would report seeing a ship with its sails up and no lights, and it would sail over to investigate, then go up on the reefs" of French Frigate Shoals, he said.

"There are incredible stories of survivors living on islands for months, living on birds and seals, and building small boats with the wreckage. Several of these boats were named 'Deliverance,' and volunteers would sail off to get help," Van Tilburg said.

Along with archaeologists, the month-long monitoring trip will include representatives from the National Ocean Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Land and Natural Resources, National Park Service, Bishop Museum and various agencies associated with the University of Hawai'i, from the Waikiki Aquarium to the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies.

The goal is to put a large number of scientists of varying disciplines on the reefs at one time, to gain a great deal of information in as short a period of time as possible — a "rapid assessment of the most remote large-scale coral reef ecosystem on the planet," Smith said.

"We're looking at the living spectrum from the coral and the fish to the algae and invertebrates. We're trying to look at all of these parts of the marine ecosystem simultaneously and comprehensively," said Rusty Brainard, the Coral Reefs Ecosystem Investigation chief for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Honolulu Laboratories. Geology, Hawaiian cultural experts and others are also involved.

The initial voyage in 2000 involved the same ships, and this voyage will be the last for the Townsend Cromwell, which has been sailing out of Hawai'i for 40 years on scientific missions. The 164-foot vessel will be decommissioned in October after its return from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The progress of the expedition will be updated daily on the Web site.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.