After we reach shore, at brunch, I get Hans talking about himself. He grew up in California. His dad, an Indiana Hoosier of Dutch ancestry, liked boats and introduced Hans to sailing as a kid. They took a diving course together when Hans was 11. Then the father, preferring sea level, gave his dive gear to the son.
In Davy Jones’ locker: Van Tilburg first dove this wreck off Maui in February 2010: It’s a World War II Helldiver that’s been sitting on the ocean floor off Ma‘alaea since 1944. “When people look out at the ocean, they see a flat blue plain,” says Van Tilburg. “That’s an illusion.”
Hans worked as a diving instructor and science diver but mostly supported himself and his family as a carpenter in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also connected to Hawai‘i thanks to his mother’s family, who are Chinese and live in the Pearl City area. (His forebear in the Islands, Hans tells me, was the first naturalized Chinese citizen of the Hawaiian kingdom.)
After earning his bachelor’s in geography from UC Berkeley and his master’s in maritime history and nautical archeology from East Carolina University, Hans landed at the University of Hawai‘i, where he completed his doctorate and still teaches as a complement to his position at NOAA.
An avid historian, he loves the stories of sites he has explored. The USS Saginaw, a Navy wreck from 1870, is one of his favorites. A hybrid sailing vessel and paddlewheel steamer that was only 150 feet long, the Saginaw was the first warship ever built on the US West Coast. During the Civil War it defended Union steam liners out of San Francisco from raids by Confederate ships. The little ship represented its country in China, Japan, Mexico and also Alaska when the United States purchased that vast tract of wilderness. On its last run the Saginaw went to fetch some Bostonian harbor-blasters on Midway Island but wound up driven onto the reef at Kure Atoll.
Reports say that all ninety-three passengers wound up on Kure, where they sat for two months eating albatrosses. Five volunteers made an open-boat voyage to Hawai‘i, a month-long ordeal during which rough seas swept away the gig’s oars and spoiled all of the men’s provisions. By the time they reached Kaua‘i’s north shore, four of the men were so weak that they drowned in the island’s rough shore break attempting to land. The fifth had enough strength to survive —according to Hans, the man’s stamina derived from his occasional swigs of sperm-whale lamp oil. This man made his way to Honolulu and appealed to Kamehameha V for assistance. The kingdom sent a vessel to Kure and rescued the castaways.
In 2003 Hans led a team of marine archeologists to Kure, and they discovered the Saginaw’s remains by following a trail of metal artifacts. Any wood from the wreck was long gone, munched away by shipworms. This was a “high-energy” site, meaning the divers were tossed around by ocean surges under a whitewater surface. “Shipwrecks,” Hans observes, “tend to happen in nasty places.” Still, the team managed to document the ship’s metal parts, anchors and cannons. In 2010 Hans published a lively history of the boat, A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters: Life on Board USS Saginaw.
Whaling disasters yield some of the best Hawai‘i shipwreck stories. For example, in 1822 the British whaler Pearl and its consort Hermes both collided with a reef in the as-yet uncharted Northwest chain, near a place that’s now called Pearl and Hermes Atoll. The ships were out to find the “Japan Grounds,” a midoceanic region said to be teeming with sperm whales. Instead the crews found themselves stranded on a bare slip of land. Unlike the Saginaw castaways, these sailors were able to scavenge beams and materials from the wrecks. They built their own escape vessel, a thirty-ton schooner that they named Deliverance. Before they could launch it, help arrived, and most of the stranded sailors chose to be rescued. But twelve of them, including Deliverance’s chief carpenter, James Robinson, stayed loyal to their schooner and eventually sailed it to Honolulu. In this way, disaster turned to good fortune: Robinson stayed in Honolulu, which was then scarcely more than a village, where he started Hawai‘i’s first modern shipyard.
The late nineteenth century gave us interisland steamships and plenty of shoreline mishaps around the main Islands. Shipwreck Beach on Lana‘i’s remote north shore became a kind of dumping ground for derelict vessels of that era. (In 2009 Hans took a crew of university students to camp on that shore and sharpen their maritime archeology skills.) World War II left us a trove of sunken artifacts, too. Divers and fishermen often spot them. NOAA fisheries crews, who haul debris out of the Northwest chain—“That’s heroic work they do,” says Hans—will sometimes happen upon a site. So will the deep-sea operators of Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory (its quaint acronym: HURL), who in 2002 discovered a Japanese midget submarine sunk off Pearl Harbor. Sometimes Hans and crew will search for debris using magnetometers or side scan sonar. “But nothing,” he says, “beats a live diver on an interpretive exploration.” And the point is that there’s a lot down there.
“When people look out at the ocean, they see a flat blue plain,” says Hans. “That’s an illusion. Our footprint extends into the sea. The ocean is a window.”
In Hawai‘i that footprint is far bigger than most people think. “Some four hundred to five hundred vessels have been lost in Hawaiian waters,” says Hans. Also, nearly 1,500 naval aircraft now lie underwater, according to the US Navy’s “crash cards.” Only about two dozen of those have been discovered. Most of Hawai‘i’s underwater wrecks have never been explored. Why not promote a “heritage trail” of undersea exploration? Hans suggests. “Our wreck-diving tourism industry is kind of undersold.
“What I tell young kids,” he concludes, “is that we don’t really live on islands. We live on mountains.” And if you pulled back that cold blue cover of water, Hans says, “we’d be the largest maritime museum in the world.”