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A milo leaf floats in the hands of healer Mahealani Kaiwikuamo'okekuaokalani Henry.photo by Linny Morris Cunningham
Vol. 8, No. 3
June/July 2005

 

The Wreck Diver 

Story By: Martha Cheng

The first clue that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maritime archeologist Kelly Gleason Keogh and her team of underwater researchers had found something big was the anchor. It lay on the reef at French Frigate Shoals, largest atoll of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. From the shape of the anchor’s crown and flukes, Keogh knew it dated to the early nineteenth century. It was nine feet long and lying in fifteen feet of water—far too much anchor for such a shallow spot. Its size indicated a large ship, and a large ship that close to the reef meant disaster. Keogh and her team knew they had found a nineteenth-century shipwreck.

Shortly after finding the anchor, they came upon another clue, an enormous coral-encrusted try-pot, a cast-iron cauldron used to render oil from whale blubber. As soon as they laid eyes on it, they knew the wreck was that of a whaling ship. Next the team found two more try-pots, along with hundreds of bricks scattered across the reef, remnants of the stoves that brought the try-pots to a boil. 

Keogh knew that three whaling ships had been lost at French Frigate Shoals: the Daniel Wood, the South Seaman and the Two Brothers. The last was by far the most noteworthy, for it had a connection through its captain to the notorious whaleship Essex, which clashed with an angry sperm whale in an incident that inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick. As Keogh surveyed the debris strewn across the shallow reef, she wondered, “Could this be the Two Brothers?” It would take two years before enough evidence accrued for her to conclude that the wreck was, indeed, that ship.

A single marked-up copy of Moby-Dick and a variety of nautical nonfiction fill the bookshelves in Keogh’s office at NOAA’s Inouye Regional Center on Ford Island at Pearl Harbor. Keogh is the maritime heritage coordinator for the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, which is part of the National Marine Sanctuary System. Since the first national marine sanctuary was established in 1975 following the discovery of the Civil War ironclad USS Monitor, NOAA has been at the forefront of finding, documenting and protecting the nation’s iconic shipwrecks. Keogh’s duties as maritime heritage coordinator involve uncovering the histories of the wrecks at Papahanaumokuakea, which encompasses the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

Established by President George W. Bush in 2006 and expanded by President Barack Obama in 2016 to nearly half a million square miles, Papahanaumokuakea is now twice the size of Texas and the largest marine sanctuary area in the world. Stretching across some 1,200 miles of ocean, it is a low-lying maze of shoals, atolls, islets and jagged reefs, with a history of catching unsuspecting ships like a barbed-wire fence. Keogh estimates it contains more than sixty shipwrecks. These include both American and British whaling ships, Japanese junks, fishing boats from Hawai‘i, guano transports, coal carriers, salvage ships and both US and Japanese naval vessels. The Battle of Midway in 1942 made a major contribution to the wreckage, sending planes, warships and even aircraft carriers to the bottom of the ocean. When we meet, Keogh is deep in archival research in preparation for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Battle of Midway, and she’s organizing a dive team that will look for wrecks around Midway Atoll this May.

Still, Keogh says, it’s rare to find anything on the seafloor at Papahanaumokuakea that looks like an actual plane or ship. Thanks to the reefs, storms and winter surf, discovering wrecks in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is less like uncovering the intact villas of Pompeii than it is finding the scattered Legos of a destructive toddler. “You get a bunch of clues on the seafloor, and you have to put all the pieces of the puzzle together,” she says. Such puzzles can take years to solve, if they can be solved at all.

Keogh makes one or two trips a year to Papahanaumokuakea, hunting for and documenting wrecks for a month at a time. She has participated in or led some twenty archeological expeditions to the monument. When not diving for wrecks, she is often diving into archives—she’s a regular at Bishop Museum and the Smithsonian Institution—searching for information about the ships. Piecing together the stories of the vessels and their crews is as much a part of Keogh’s job as finding, documenting and protecting the shipwrecks themselves. The goal is to “use shipwrecks and maritime history as a way to connect people with the sanctuary sites,” she says. “Shipwrecks are something that really resonate with the public because of the human element, the human story.” 

The survivors of these shipwrecks tended to be a resourceful and hardy bunch. “There are some really fascinating survivor camp stories,” Keogh says. “These were innovative guys, turning parts of their ship into something to keep them going, turning boilers into water-purifying devices.”

Stories of the wrecks she’s researched are published on the National Marine Sanctuaries web site. I’m fascinated by her accounts, including that of the British whalers Pearl and Hermes, for which the Pearl and Hermes Atoll is named. Both ships struck the reef there within minutes of each other one night in 1822, and the combined crew of fifty-seven men became castaways on a nearby sandy island. One of the carpenters from the Hermes, James Robinson, supervised the construction of a small schooner from the salvaged debris, naming it Deliverance. When the vessel was nearly completed, a passing ship rescued most of the castaways. But Robinson and eleven others remained behind to finish work on their ship, which they sailed to Honolulu and then sold for $2,000. Robinson went on to found the James Robinson and Company shipyard in Honolulu, becoming a prominent citizen. Keogh’s team found both wrecks in 2004.

In 2008, while diving on the reef at Kure Atoll, Keogh and her divers came across the wreck of the Gledstanes, a British whaler that broke apart in 1837. The survivors in that case also salvaged what they could from their ruined ship and built a vessel they, too, named Deliverance. The Gledstanes’ captain and nine others reached Honolulu in the boat, while the others remained at Kure Atoll for several months before a ship rescued them. After Keogh made the discovery, she told the Honolulu Advertiser: “For years I have been coming up to Kure Atoll in hopes of searching for this particular shipwreck but have thus far been deterred by the weather and unworkable conditions. This year, the Gledstanes was revealed to us, and we couldn’t be more thrilled with the opportunity to share this wreck site and its story with the public.”

In 1842, four years after the Gledstanes sank at Kure Atoll, a whaler out of New Bedford named Parker wrecked there, too. The lifeboats were lost in the storm that smashed the ship on the reef, so the crew fashioned a raft from the ship’s masts and spars. “It took the exhausted men eight days to drift and warp this raft to the island on the southeastern side of the atoll,” Keogh wrote. “There, some of the ship remains of the wrecked British whaler Gledstanes provided firewood and building materials. The Gledstanes’ dog, having gone wild during his years of isolation, provided some variety in the crew’s diet of seabirds and seals, however brief.”

After eight months on the tiny island, a passing ship rescued the castaways. Keogh’s team found what they believe might be the wreck of the Parker in 2002, returning several times to document anchors, anchor chain, hull sheathing, copper fasteners, rigging hardware, wire rope, bricks and other material spread across an area of three hundred square feet. “But is the wreck site really the whaler Parker?” Keogh wrote. “The types of artifacts correspond to a mid-nineteenth century whaler, and the site location is consistent with the historical report, but there is no conclusive piece of evidence as yet, so identification as the Parker remains preliminary.” In short, it’s still a mystery.

And then there was the mystery of the Two Brothers. Keogh and her team found the wreck at the tail end of the 2008 research trip to French Frigate Shoals. Unsure of its identity, they named it the Shark Island Whaler, after the nearest island. They had just one day to survey the site before returning to Honolulu. “We drew as much as we could and took pictures, but then we had to head back,” Keogh says. “That was hard.” She and her team returned in 2009 and 2010, finding dozens of other artifacts, including ceramics and glass, more cast-iron pots, blubber hooks, lances and harpoon tips. All of it had an American provenance and dated to the 1820s. The other two whalers that wrecked at French Frigate Shoals went down decades later. Keogh found accounting records in the archives of the Nantucket Historical Society connecting the sale of cast-iron pots in Nantucket, the Two Brothers’ homeport, to the pots found at the wreck site. The evidence suggested that the Shark Island Whaler was indeed the Two Brothers. Keogh announced the discovery in 2011 on the 188th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.

At the time the Two Brothers had been all but forgotten, though its hapless captain, George Pollard Jr., was still known for the loss of his first doomed ship, the Essex. Twenty-five hundred miles off the west coast of South America in 1820, the Essex was repeatedly rammed by an enraged sperm whale until it broke open and sank. Pollard and his crew spent ninety-two days at sea in small boats, starving, going mad and ultimately resorting to cannibalism. The fate of the Essex is mirrored in the fate of Melville’s fictional whaleship Pequod at the end of Moby-Dick.

A year after being rescued, Pollard was back on the ocean aboard the Two Brothers in search of whales. When a fellow sea captain asked him how he could bear going to sea again after the Essex horror, Pollard reportedly replied, “It’s an old adage that lightning never strikes in the same place twice!”

Only in Pollard’s case, it did. He sailed from Nantucket aboard the Two Brothers in 1821, headed for whaling grounds near Japan. He never made it, smashing into the reef at French Frigate Shoals during a winter storm in 1822. As waves began breaking the Two Brothers apart, Pollard’s crew pleaded with him to abandon ship. They clung to small boats through the night and were rescued the next morning by the Martha, which had been accompanying them. All the men survived, but Pollard’s career did not. Now labeled a Jonah—one who brings bad luck to sailors—he spent the rest of his days as a night watchman on Nantucket.

An exhibit that tells the story of the Two Brothers is currently on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. It features artifacts from the wreck, including the cast-iron cooking pots, harpoon tips, whaling lances and pieces of ceramic plate that might have belonged to Pollard. Eventually the artifacts will be put on permanent display at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center in Hilo as part of an existing exhibit called “Lost on a Reef.” It tells the story of several of the shipwrecks at Papahanaumokuakea. Keogh helped design these exhibits as part of her public outreach work.

There are no sunken treasure chests filled with gold doubloons resting on the seafloor at Papahanaumokuakea. “Most of the shipwrecks are very unglamorous, working-type vessels,” Keogh says. The whaling ships in particular, she says, were “factories at sea.” Yet as industrial and mundane as some of these material remains may be, they still offer glimpses into Hawai‘i’s history and maritime past. “There are rich human stories that go with the shipwrecks,” Keogh says. “To put a human dimension on them makes it a more powerful way to understand that history.”

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