The Unseen Landscape: Hawaiʻi's Underwater History

Mar 12, 2018

An American dive bomber discovered off of Ma'alaea Bay, Maui. While engaged in a dive-bombing practice attack on August 31, 1944, high-speed maneuvers damaged the tail fin and jammed the rudder controls. Navy Lt. William E. Dill and aviation radioman Kenneth Jobe made a successful water landing and ditched the naval aircraft.
Credit Hans Van Tilburg / NOAA ONMS

A first-of-its-kind study of Hawaiʻi’s underwater cultural heritage has been completed. The vast inventory of shipwrecks and submerged aircrafts in Hawaiian waters serve as an underwater history museum waiting to be discovered. HPR’s Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi reports.

I met Hans Van Tilburg at the Makai Research Pier in Waimānalo. 

Makai Research Pier in Waimanalo as seen from Baby Makapu'u.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Along the shore to our right, a dozen or so surfers are catching waves at Baby Makapuʻu, to our left a family of four is fishing off the pier. But he is much more interested in what’s underwater.

Dr. Hans Van Tilburg inspects a sunken derrick at the former site of the Waimanalo Plantation landing. Prior to construction of any roads over the pali (cliffs), transportation was by small steamer to Honolulu. The beach landing served the nearby sugar mill, completed by plantation owner John Cummins in 1881.
Credit Tane Casserly / NOAA ONMS

“There’s actually the remains of the old steamship landing. In this area, there were steamship landings servicing local plantations, like the Waimānalo Plantation right over there,” says Van Tilburg, “You know there was Bellow’s, Bellow’s Air Force Base, and so there are aircraft located right out there. Actually, in Hawaiʻi there's over 1,475 naval aircraft underwater that we know of.”

Maritime Historian and Underwater Archaeologist Dr. Hans Van Tilburg led research efforts to inventory underwater cultural resources in Hawaiian waters. Here he is at the Makai Research Pier in Waimanalo.
Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi

Van Tilburg is a maritime historian and underwater archeologist for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He oversaw a three-year study to inventory underwater cultural resources in Hawaiian waters. So everything from the remains of ancient Hawaiian fishponds to shipwrecks make up what he calls the submerged historical landscape.

Fishpond outer wall and interior fish traps at Kaloko Honokohau, Hawai'i Island. Loko i'a or native Hawaiian fishponds are documented as part of the study because of it's cultural and historical significance as well as the potential impact by proposed coastal development projects.
Credit NOAA ONMS

“All of that history, for the most part is unseen. Because for hundreds of thousands of years you know sailors aren't writing books, they're sailing. And their history and their legacy is lost in shipwrecks under the sea,” says Van Tilburg, “Unless you find them and interpret them, those stories go untold.”

The SS Kaua'i lost at Mahukona Port in 1913. The wooden-hulled ship went onto the reef while carrying railroad parts and bags of sugar between islands. The steamer wreck site and the ruins of the historic Mahukona port itself combine to represent aspects of a major era in Hawai'i's economic development - the plantation period.
Credit Hawaii State Archives

The study recorded more than 2,100 known or reported submerged resources, and is the first comprehensive assessment of Hawaiʻi’s underwater cultural heritage. Something Kiersten Faulkner says helps supplement a wealth of land based history in the Hawaiian Islands.

“So this new study on submerged cultural resources brings the ocean into that dialogue and into that understanding of being an island people and what that means when you’re surrounded by water,” says Faulkner.

Faulkner is the Executive Director of the Historic Hawaiʻi Foundation. The foundation focuses on historic preservation, which includes underwater resources.

Divers map a wreck site near Maui. Pictured here is a highly deteriorated amphibious craft used by the U.S. Army and lost during training for Operation Forager and the invasion of Saipan in June 1944.
Credit Hans Van Tilburg / NOAA ONMS

“So what’s nice also about this study is it talks about when it needs to be known and when it needs to be held confidential or quiet, and only known by the families or the caretaker groups,” says Faulkner.

“For shallow water sites that are accessible, there might be an occasional diver who feels like some of that could be personal property and that’s a little bit of a problem,” says Van Tilberg, “You know visitation is great, we encourage that, but these are protected sites and things shouldn’t be taken off of them”

Van Tilburg says not everything underwater is historically significant. But this study is a first step in raising awareness of historical resources that require preservation. That could involve projects like undersea cables, channel dredging, or offshore energy development.