NOAA 03-462
Contact: Glenda Powell
NOAA News Releases 2003
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) today announced it has located two significant shipwrecks in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. The 133-year old wreck of the American warship USS Saginaw and the possible remains of the American whaleship Parker, were located on a recently completed NOAA research mission off Kure Atoll. NOAA is part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

"Uncovering and clarifying our nation's unique maritime past is an important goal of NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program. These discoveries are one of a continuing and growing legacy of exploration by both our scientists and those of our partners throughout the Sanctuary Program,” said Richard W. Spinrad, assistant administrator for NOAA’s National Ocean Service which manages the sanctuary program and is responsible for overseeing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve.

The study of submerged maritime resources is supported by NOAA’s Maritime Archaeology Program and the discovery of these wrecks were part of annual field work by NOAA archaeologists aboard the R/V Mana Cat.

The team that found the USS Saginaw, was led by Hans Van Tilburg, maritime heritage manager, for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve. Joining Van Tilburg for the Reserve’s August 2003 fieldwork were colleagues Brad Rodgers and Kelly Gleason of East Carolina University’s Program in Maritime Studies, and Andrew Lydecker of Panamerican Maritime Inc. The work was conducted in coordination with the State of Hawaii, the Naval Historical Center, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The USS Saginaw was a transitional vessel, a paddle wheel steam sailing sloop. Launched in 1859 for anti-piracy patrols in China, she was later deployed to the Pacific Squadron during the Civil War. The Saginaw’s last duty was to serve as the supply ship for a team of divers working to blast a channel through the reef at Midway Atoll. She wrecked at Kure on her return voyage, all of her crew and contractors making the transit to nearby Green Island the following day. A small boat was soon fitted out for the hazardous month-long voyage back to the main Hawaiian Islands. Tragically, four of its five volunteers died in the rough surf upon landing at Kauai. The remaining castaways were rescued following 67 days on the remote island.

Among the most interesting discoveries in exploring the wreck was that the ship’s sounding lead rests in perfect condition. Such heavy lead sinkers would have been (should have been) swung over the side to mark the depth when approaching shallow waters. It appears as if there was little warning preceded the Saginaw’s impact. The artifacts’ debris trails graphically record the initial strike, the ship’s bow subsequently being swung to seaward by the breakers, and the eventual breakup of the entire vessel. The divers are not yet sure of the identity of the whaling ship, but signs point to it being the American whaler, Parker. Of the seven known wrecks at Kure, only two vessels likely correspond to the nature of the scattered artifacts surveyed: the British whaleship Gledstanes, reported lost in 1837, and the American whaleship Parker, wrecked on the reef in 1842.

The survivors of the USS Saginaw wreck in 1870 reported seeing extensive remains of the British vessel directly to their north, which does not correspond to the location of this second site.

This wreck site appears to be the bow section of a mid-19th century whaling vessel. The scour path which leads to the reef, and numerous small magnetometer hits outside the reef indicate an initial impact on the seaward reef slope, followed by large broken sections of the ship being lifted over the crest by the storm and deposited inside the lagoon, dropping artifacts in a trail as they moved.

Within the calm waters of the lagoon lies an extensive scatter of windlass machinery, fasteners, anchors and anchor chain, wire rigging, hull sheathing and bricks. The distribution and style of these elements suggest the wreck of a large wooden hull sailing vessel, a whaling ship, of considerable size. Further work at Kure will be able to solve the question of this wreck’s exact identity.

Both the wrecks of the USS Saginaw and the whaleship are protected by a number of state and federal preservation laws. The Saginaw, furthermore, remains property of the U.S. Navy.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve contains a critical habitat for many endangered and threatened species including the monk seal and the green sea turtle. The reserve is the largest conservation area in the United States and the second largest on earth with the first largest being the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

NOAA’s NMSP seeks to increase the public awareness of America’s maritime heritage by conducting scientific research, monitoring, exploration and educational programs. Today, 13 national marine sanctuaries encompass more than 18,000 square miles of America’s ocean and Great Lakes natural and cultural resources.

NOAA’s National Ocean Service manages the NMSP and is dedicated to exploring, understanding, conserving and restoring the nation’s coasts and oceans. The National Ocean Service balances environmental protection with economic prosperity in fulfilling its mission of promoting safe navigation, supporting coastal communities, sustaining coastal habitats and mitigating coastal hazards.

The Commerce Department’s NOAA is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.

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