Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Blog 5 - Pearl and Hermes - Day 1

Dr. Kelly Gleason - Maritime Archaeologist – Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

In 2004, a team of NOAA National Marine Fishery Service, Coral Reef Ecosystem Division (NMFS/CRED) divers searching for marine debris in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands came across an exciting find: the lost whaling ships Pearl and Hermes, for which Pearl and Hermes Atoll was named. NOAA maritime archaeologists conducted several field seasons of survey at the two sites, completing a thorough documentation of the two whaling shipwreck sites in 2008. Wrecked in 1822, The Pearl and the Hermes are to date, the oldest shipwreck sites discovered and documented in Hawaiian waters.

Oscar Valenzuela and Dr. Kelly Gleason surveying the wreck of the Pearl

The Pearl and the Hermes were two vessels of the British South Seas Whaling Industry heading from Honolulu to the newly discovered Japan Whaling Grounds just north west of Kure Atoll in 1822. At this time, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands were not very well charted. These low lying atolls were a navigational hazard to the numerous whaling vessels transiting further and further afield in the Pacific in search of whales and their oil. In the middle of the night in April of 1822, the Hermes ran aground first, and the Pearl ran aground shortly afterwards about 400 meters to the east. The men made their way to a small island inside the atoll, and set up a camp by salvaging provisions and wreckage from the two vessels. As they awaited rescue, the carpenter of the Hermes, James Robinson, supervised the building of a 30 foot schooner named the Deliverance that they planned to sail to Honolulu in search for rescue.

By the time the building of the Deliverance was complete, a passing vessel, the Earl of Morby picked up all survivors of the Pearl and Hermes shipwrecks. 12 sailors opted to remain behind, and sailed the Deliverance back to Honolulu. Once they arrived in Honolulu, James Robinson sold the Deliverance for $2000, which he used to start James Robinson Shipbuilding Company. He married into a Hawaiian family and became a prominent member of Hawaiian society.

Trypot from wreck of the Pearl
Though archaeological survey and documentation of the Pearl and Hermes shipwreck sites are complete, research and long term monitoring continue on an opportunistic basis as protection of these sites is a management priority. On September 13, I had the chance to return to the Pearl shipwreck site in the company of Kimi Werner, Kyle Nakamoto, Greg McFall and Oscar Valenzuela. Conveying the compelling shipwreck and survival story of the Pearl and the Hermes to new people is always an exciting experience. Kimi, Kyle and Oscar were new visitors to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and the opportunity to share with them a bit of the rich seafaring and maritime history of the place was an honor. What fascinates me are the new things I notice at the shipwreck site every time I return. This season, sands had shifted a great deal and I was able to get new views of artifacts. The site consists of anchors, four large trypots (used for boiling whale blubber down to oil), cannon, bricks, a grinding stone (used to sharpen tools) and dozens of copper fasteners and sheathing tacks. Newly exposed artifacts glistened in the bright, shallow surge of the reef crest. I took advantage of the photographic expertise of Greg McFall and collected dozens of images that will help to further document the site and the way it changes seasonally. Like the many other times I have the honor to visit these sites, I am reminded of the way that these artifacts scattered on the seafloor are much more than just remnants of an unlucky ship, they are a window into the broader question about why we are all here, and the fascinating stories of seafaring that stretch back hundreds and thousands of years throughout the Pacific.

Pearl Gudgeon - a piece of the rudder


  1. You are bringing back memories of the 2004 voyage! I was on the Hi'ialakai when the Casitas crew reported finding something interesting: http://hawaiianatolls.org/research/NWHIRAMP2004/journals/j0928_pearl_hermes_3.php Pearl & Hermes is one of my favorite places on the planet: http://hawaiianatolls.org/research/NWHIRAMP2004/journals/j0926_pearl_hermes_1.php . Aloha, Dan Suthers

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