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Oshima header

One July 23rd, 2006, the NOAA ship Hiialakai returned to Honolulu following a 28-day research cruise to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  The multidisciplinary expedition included six maritime archaeologists with NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program conducting non-invasive survey at Kure Atoll and Pearl and Hermes Atoll.  The NOAA team this year included: Brenda Altmeier (Florida Keys NMS), Dr. Kelly Gleason (Pacific Islands Region NMS), Tane Casserley (Maritime Heritage Program NMS), Lindsey Thomas (Hollings program intern from the University of Georgia), Robert Schwemmer (West Coast Region NMS), and Dr. Hans Van Tilburg (Pacific Islands Region NMS, principal investigator).  Identifying new wreck sites is an important part of resource assessment and management.   The "Oshima" wreck is currently a mystery waiting to be solved.      

The iron stove in the galley section of the wreck site.  Also located near the galley, electrical components and debris from the water closet or ship s head.
The iron stove in the galley section of the wreck site. Also located near the galley, electrical components and debris from the water closet or ship's "head." (Photo: NOAA NMSP)

The site of this unidentified wreck was discovered by NOAA divers in 2004.  The Coral Reef Ecosystem Division of NOAA's Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center has supported the removal of drift fishing nets from the fragile reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for a number of years.  Annually, teams of "marine debris" divers visually survey high impact zones in the distant atolls, cutting these nets away and removing them.  These are the same teams who discovered the British whaling wrecks Pearl and Hermes at Pearl and Hermes Atoll.  In their work to restore the ecosystem, they also occasionally report on other types of "debris."  In 2006 the maritime archaeology team had their first chance to check on some wreck components reported two years earlier. 

NOAA archaeologist above the windlass and nearby ventilator.
NOAA archaeologist above the windlass and nearby ventilator. (Photo: NOAA NMSP)

Inside the northern section of Pearl and Hermes Atoll, divers found three major artifact areas: 1) bow area with windlass, observation "tuna" tower, ventilators and both hawse pipes and anchors (Japanese "Oshima" design dating to 1918...hence the site nickname); 2) cook stove area with remnants of battery boxes and insulators and electrical components and also marine head; and 3) engine skylight area, an intact deck skylight and main stack and ventilator component, along with scattered ventilator parts, pipes, and miscellaneous artifacts.  Sedimentation rate at this site appears high, and there are indications of considerable material beneath the silts of this low energy back reef site.  Electrical components exhibit Chinese characters, and insulators are marked with "H.K." emblem (possibly meaning "Hong Kong"?).  However, no engine, propeller, or lower hull components were witnessed at this location.  The remains lie in approximately 20 feet of water, on a sandy silty bottom.  Patch reefs are in the vicinity, but there is little to no coral cover on the site itself. 

The shipwreck site located in the northern atoll area is in the general vicinity of a more familiar local landmark known as the "engine block."  The engine is, in fact, a six-cylinder Atlas Imperial diesel and machinery scatter, propeller shaft and propeller, a marine propulsion plant popular in the early decades of the 20th century.  Coincidentally, the engine block site at the reef crest shows no sign of any deck equipment or upper hull features, just machinery. 

The vessel s windlass in the background, with chains attached and leading to the shanks of Oshima style stockless anchors (upside-down), both still snug in their hawse pipes.
The vessel's windlass in the background, with chains attached and leading to the shanks of Oshima style stockless anchors (upside-down), both still snug in their hawse pipes. (Photo: NOAA NMSP)

Are these two elements of the same vessel?  The archaeologists also discovered a debris trail of parts leading from the engine block into the lagoon.  The findings suggest one possible scenario: an East Asian fishing vessel strikes the northern reef crest at Pearl and Hermes under power (propeller blades all bent).  The bottom is torn out of the vessel, dropping the Atlas Imperial engine, and the wreck is pushed or drifts further into the lagoon where it sinks after striking two large coral heads (vicinity of site), sometime after 1918.  This assumes the two sites are associated, which has not yet been confirmed.  The fate of the crew is unknown.  Did they abandon ship at the first impact, or remain on board into the lagoon? 

Photo mosaic image of the Atlas Imperial marine diesel engine, a well known landmark for researchers in the NWHI.  10cm increment scale.
Photo mosaic image of the Atlas Imperial marine diesel engine, a well known landmark for researchers in the NWHI. 10cm increment scale. (Photo: NOAA NMSP)

Further research into the history of this wreck is recommended, for there is no documentation of any known vessel loss which corresponds to the "Oshima" wreck.  These clues lie within State waters, as well as the management areas of the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument.  Maritime heritage work on the site focuses on dating and identifying the vessel.  More in the future!

Additional Resources and Links

Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument
To learn more about the expedition click here.
Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources
NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Pacific/Remote Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex


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