Friday, April 26, 2013

Shipwrecks at Holoikauaua (the Pearl and the Hermes)

Holoikauaua (literally, Hawaiian monk seal that swims in the rough) is an atoll now known as Pearl and Hermes.  Its modern name reflects the twin wrecks of British whalers, the ‘Pearl’ and the ‘Hermes,’ lost in 1822.

Holoikauaua is a large oval coral reef with several internal reefs and seven sandbar/islets above sea level along the southern half of the atoll. The land area is just under 100-acres (surrounded by more that 300,000-acres of coral reef) and is 20-miles across and 12-miles wide.

The highest point above sea level is about 10-feet. The islets are periodically washed over when winter storms pass through.  Its estimated age is 26.8-million years.

As American and British whalers first made passage from Hawai‘i to the seas near Japan, they encountered the low and uncharted atolls of the NWHI. There are 52 known shipwreck sites throughout the NWHI, the earliest dating back to 1822 - the Pearl and the Hermes.

During the night of April 26, 1822, these British whaling ships ran aground almost simultaneously.  The 327-ton Pearl (with Capt. E. Clark) grounded into a sandy coral groove, pressing its wooden keel into the sediment, while the smaller 258-ton Hermes (with Capt. J. Taylor) hit the hard sea bed.

The British whaler 'Pearl' was originally built as an American ship in Philadelphia at least as early as 1805. At some time after that, the ship may have been captured by the French during the aftermath of the Quasi-war and renamed La Perla.

She was subsequently taken by the British privateer Mayflower and from there put into service in the British South Seas whaling industry out of London.

The two ships had been making a passage from Honolulu to the newly discovered Japan Grounds, a track which took them through the uncharted Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The Pearl and the Hermes (wrecked to the west of the Pearl) are the only known British South Sea whaling wreck sites in the world.

The Hermes was not cradled by the reef, but disintegrated as she pounded across the sharp reef. The Pearl, sailing close by and striking the reef only a few minutes later, was more fortunate. She seems to have lodged firmly in place in a deeper groove with her stern seaward, and then she broke up more gradually over time.

Ship's carpenter James Robinson commented in a letter to his mother, "When the vessel (Hermes) struck she was thrown on her beam end and being endangered by the masts falling - but God ordained it otherwise."

The combined crews (totaling 57) made it safely to one of the small islands and were castaway for months with what meager provisions they could salvage.

Using salvaged timbers and other parts of the lost ships, one of the carpenters on board the Hermes, James Robinson, supervised the building of a small 30-ton schooner named ‘Deliverance’ on the beach.

Before launching the beach-built rescue vessel, the castaways were rescued by a passing ship.

Though most of the crew elected to board the rescue ship, Robinson and 11 others were able to recoup some of the financial losses from the wrecks by sailing the nearly finished Deliverance back to Honolulu, and eventually selling her there for $2,000.

From there, Robinson went on to found the highly successful James Robinson and Company shipyard in 1827 (the first shipyard at Honolulu) and became an influential member of the island community (his descendants became a well-known island family and his fortune founded the Robinson Estate.)  (This family is different than the Robinson’s associated with Niʻihau.)

In 2004, NOAA divers in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands came across the two whaling vessel wreck sites at Pearl and Hermes Atoll.

The wreck of the Pearl lies seaward of the reef crest, but in the proximity of the surf zone, the Hermes site was to the west of the Pearl.

Artifacts were found at the sites, however they are quite deteriorated.  Large iron try pots (for rendering the whale blubber into oil,) blubber hooks, anchors, brick and iron ballast pieces and fasteners were found around each site.

Cannons (four from the Hermes and two from the Pearl) and numerous cannon balls indicate the nature of hazards faced during early 19th century whaling voyages to the Pacific.

The image shows a diver investigating an anchor at the Hermes shipwreck site (NOAA-Casserley.)  (Lots of good info here from NOAA.)  In addition, I have included other images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.

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