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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, September 30, 2004

Whalers' wreckage could be from 1822

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Staff Writer

Divers have found wreckage believed to be the British whaling vessels Pearl and Hermes, lost in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 1822.

If scientists can confirm the debris is from one or both of the whaling ships, it would be the oldest shipwreck of a western vessel in the Hawaiian Islands.

The wreckage, discovered last week by divers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was spread across almost 700 yards of reef and ocean floor.

The debris clearly came from a whaling vessel, officials said, and there are no records of any other whaling losses at Pearl and Hermes Atoll, named for the lost ships and located 1,210 miles northwest of Honolulu.

The vessels were sailing together in pursuit of whales the night of April 24, 1822, when the Pearl struck the reef at the atoll. The Hermes maneuvered toward its stricken sister ship in an attempt to help, but also struck the reef, according to accounts by survivors.

All crew members made it to shore and were rescued. Little else is known about the loss of the ships, and the wrecks were not pinpointed until now.

The wreckage was discovered Sept. 20 by marine debris specialists Mark Albins, Oliver Dameron and Susanna Holst, who as a team spotted and photographed the wreckage. The divers were from the ship Casitas, which was in the area working on an NOAA-organized mission to collect and dispose of fishing nets and other junk.

"It's amazing how much of this vessel is still here after almost 200 years," said Randy Kosaki, chief scientist aboard the National Ocean Service research vessel Hi'ialakai and research coordinator for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. Kosaki and crew are still at sea, due back in Honolulu Oct. 17.

The surrounding reef appears to contain wooden sections of the ship itself. Divers also discovered cannons and cannonballs, iron anchors, large cauldrons used to process whale oil and bricks from structures used to support the cauldrons.

Also found were gaffs and other gear for hunting and processing whales, pintles or bronze hardware attached to the rudder, copper spikes used as fasteners, and copper sheathing that lined the lower hull of the ships.

Scientists are not releasing the location of the wreckage for fear the site would be stripped of its artifacts. The wreck is within state waters, and under federal and state preservation laws, it cannot be disturbed.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are known for poorly charted reefs and atolls, and the area has claimed more than 120 vessels and aircraft. Only a handful of the wreckage sites have been surveyed.

"This is an exciting chance to investigate our maritime heritage in the Pacific," said Hans Van Tilburg, maritime heritage coordinator for the Pacific Islands Regional Office of the National Marine Sanctuaries Program. "NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries Program considers historic wreck sites such as this as valuable heritage resources from which we learn about our own past."

State and federal marine archaeologists hope to further investigate the site and confirm the source of the wreckage.

In a footnote to the story of the Pearl and Hermes, the whalers who escaped from the shipwrecks were a remarkably tough bunch.

They survived on meager rations that likely consisted of birds and turtles, and built a 30-ton schooner on the beach from the debris, Van Tilburg said.

They named the schooner Deliverance but before they could set sail, they were rescued by a passing ship called the Thames. Still, a dozen of the crew refused assistance and sailed to Honolulu on the Deliverance, Van Tilburg said.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.