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Mission Log: July 12, 2006
New Discovery: The Dunnottar Castle

Paulo Maurin
University of Hawai'i

In collaboration with Dena Deck
Bellflower Unified School District, California

In consultation with Hans Van Tilburg
NOAA National Marine Sanctuary's Maritime Heritage Program

One of the great joys of being in a place as remote as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is that it offers the possibility of exploring… and discovering. It is the joy of coming to this place with a mission agenda, and have unexpected additions to it. Last week, when we were at Kure Atoll, the discovery of a sailing vessel wrecked for more than 100 years brought to us the sudden thrill and excitement of exploration. This newly found vessel had it all – magnificently preserved structures, records of its rescue mission, a link to Hawaiian history in the late 1800s, and a peculiar story of its serendipitous discovery while we were in the area.

Dolphins from the large Kure Atoll pod.
Dolphins from the large Kure Atoll pod. (Photo: Paulo Maurin)
Cynthia Vanderlip, an experienced field researcher who has spent many years returning to the atoll and conducting dolphin counts over time, was conducting surveys with the pod living in Kure's lagoon, which includes more than a hundred members. On July 2, 2004, waters were calm with excellent visibility. Her team had followed the dolphins to the opening of the atoll. When looking down in the mirror-like waters, Cynthia's brother Brad, a volunteer for the state, noticed a large wreck laying under their small boat, a wreck that even Cynthia had not seen before.

It turned out that no one had seen it before. She notified the maritime archeologists onboard the NOAA launch HI-1, who quickly checked out the site, and concurred in that it was a site even new to them. The archeologists then invited the educators to check out this previously undiscovered site.

Large metal structures, showing the inside of the bottom hull section of the ship.
Large metal structures, showing the inside of the bottom hull section of the ship. (Photo: Paulo Maurin)
We felt extremely fortunate to be able to dive on a wreck the second day after it was discovered, after 120 years under the sea. Our group of educators reached the wreck site just a few hours after the maritime archeologist had seen it for the first time since 1886. And the magnitude of the wreck was enough to leave a lasting impression on novices like us, only recently introduced to the field of maritime archeology. Normally, you see archeologists study at length the significance of many small pieces that litter a wreck site. It is only their experience and combined work that can bring all those numerous pieces together in a cohesive picture, a drawing that they arduously put together after many hours of painstaking labor underwater. It is only in this drawing, which they do on a page several feet long, that the rest of us can see all of the significant details.

Another large section of the dunnottar Castle, now home to a lively marine ecosystem.
Another large section of the Dunnottar Castle, now home to a lively marine ecosystem. (Photo: Paulo Maurin)
But this wreck was a bit different. It laid there, in the seafloor in all of its immensity, in a manner that fully displayed its former sailing glory. The Dunnottar Castle was a large ship – almost 260 feet in length – and was built in 1874. Home ported in Scotland, it was bound from Sydney, Australia to Wilmington, California, with a load of coal. Because it struck the reef at full speed, it lodged itself securely on the outside of the Kure Atoll. When free diving this wreck site, resting at a depth of about 25 feet, we could see much of the structures still mirroring the original layout of the ship. Large metal frames rested on the bottom of the seafloor, stretching for over a hundred feet of us. More than a century after its aquatic burial, the anchor, one of the most emblematic pieces of any ship, was found laying upright on the sea floor.

Watching these metal pieces encrusted by corals and home to fish, it is easy to not think about the historical context of the ship, and the wreck. But every wreck has a story, and the wreck of the Dunnottar Castle story has links to the history of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Seven of the crew members, including its Chief Officer, took one of the surviving boats and sailed, for 52 days, to Kauai. Upon being informed of the tragedy, the British Commissioner in Honolulu organized a rescue mission. But Hawaiian officials feared that the British might take the opportunity to claim Kure Atoll, and offered to pay for part of the rescue mission, also sending a commissioner to claim it for Hawaiian Kingdom. The concern over a British claim of Kure in relationship to the Dunnottar Castle wreck adds meaning to its discovery on July 3, the day before America celebrates its independence.

Standing upright on one of its flukes, the anchor of the dunnottar Castle seems to have been carefully positioned on the seafloor.
Standing upright on one of its flukes, the anchor of the Dunnottar Castle seems to have been carefully positioned on the seafloor. (Photo: Paulo Maurin)
The rescue mission came back to Honolulu with the same amount of people it had sailed out with. No survivors were found on the atoll, except for two fox terriers and a retriever.  Maritime archeology, unlike the terrestrial counterpart, almost always involves a tragic event. But there was no further tragedy on the Dunnottar Castle. All of the survivors had been picked up earlier by a passing vessel and were on route to Chile. Upon arrival, on September 20, 1886, Kure Atoll was claimed for the Kingdom of Hawai`i by James Boyde. To help future castaways, this rescue mission built a structure and left water and supplies, and also planted coconuts, kukui trees, monkey pod trees, and others. Concerns about introducing alien species did not run very high back then. 

When free-diving this wreck, we felt the thrill of seeing a ship larger than the one which is now our home at sea, the NOAA ship Hi`ialakai, laid on the ocean floor as if it had been arranged by careful museum curators. A Galapagos shark was seen later on the wreck area, reminding us that this is no museum. This is Kure Atoll, part of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands that still offer much left to explore.

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