Story by Paul Wood
From shore the sea looks empty. That’s an illusion caused by water, which pulls its cold blue cover over 70 percent of the planet’s surface. In Hawai‘i one man who deeply understands what’s hidden below the water is Hans Van Tilburg, professor of the maritime history of this region. For the past twenty years he has explored and documented sunken steamships, whalers, sampans, aircraft, subs, schooners, tall ships and gunboats throughout the main Hawaiian Islands, the Northwest chain and American Samoa. History professor turned underwater explorer, he has followed the advice of his fictional counterpart, Indiana Jones: “If you want to be a good archeologist, you gotta get out of the library.”
When I raise this Indiana Jones comparison, Hans and I are strapping ourselves into scuba gear, bobbing in a small dive boat before dawn with fourteen other people in Ma‘alaea Bay off the South Maui shoreline. He grins. (For such a serious scholar, Hans has a very buoyant response to things. Maybe that’s what happens to people who spend a lot of time floating underwater.) Then he exclaims, “Yes, but Indiana Jones was a thief! He was out there grabbing artifacts from other cultures.”
The very idea of sticky-fingered scholarship runs counter to Hans’ mission as the maritime heritage coordinator for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in the Pacific Islands, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Preservation—that’s Hans’ purpose. Through the University of Hawai‘i’s Marine Options Program (MOP), he trains students in techniques of underwater archeology—sketching with pencil on Mylar paper, measuring with transect tapes and folding rulers, photographing but rarely lifting a thing to the upper world.