Pacific Islands Region: Maritime Heritage

shipwreck Pearl
Maritime archaeologists Tane Casserley and Kelly Gleason map the 19th century whaling shipwreck site Pearl at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. (Photo: NOAA NMSP)
Dunnottar Castle
Maritime archaeologist Hans Van Tilburg at the shipwreck site of the Dunnottar Castle, lost at Kure Atoll in 1886. (Photo: NOAA NMSP)
Dunnottar Castle
Photographer John Brooks films the maritime archaeology team working at the shipwreck site of the 19th century British whaler Pearl at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. (Photo: NOAA NMSP)
Dunnottar Castle
Maritime archaeologist Tane Casserley measures an anchor at the shipwreck site of the 19th century British whaling ship Pearl at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. (Photo: NOAA NMSP)
Dunnottar Castle
Photographer John Brooks films the shipwreck of the USS Macaw, a submarine rescue vessel lost at Midway Atoll in 1944. (Photo: NOAA NMSP)
The anchor and bow section of the American whaler Parker, lost at Kure Atoll in 1842. (Photo: NOAA NMSP)

Befitting the ocean’s size and diversity, the Pacific Islands Region possesses a fascinating and complex maritime history all its own.  In ancient times Pacific voyagers excelled at the art of non-instrument navigation, spreading their seafaring culture across vast distances, a feat incomprehensible to the first Europeans in these waters. 

Yet even with “modern” tools, exploration was a daunting task for the Spanish navigators in the 16th century, and the British, French, Russian, and American captains who sailed in their wake.  Tall sailing ships, schooners, barks, and brigs changed the nature of Pacific Island society, an often difficult transition.  Nonetheless, seafaring in the region evolved along multicultural lines.  By the mid-19th century steamships brought goods and passengers more quickly across the ocean.  In the 20th century the powerful fleets of the United States and Japan developed, and new styles of warfare emerged: amphibious vessels and naval aviation.  Nautical technology underwent a revolution in design, but the distances and maritime hazards in the Pacific remained the same.

Many years of intensive seafaring have left a physical legacy under the sea.  Literally hundreds of schooners, whaling ships, steamers and other types of submerged archaeological sites throughout the Pacific Islands lie on the seafloor like windows into the past, reflecting the great variety of Hawaiian and Pacific Island vessels and cultures.  And no corner of the region was untouched by the events of World War II.  In the Hawaiian Archipelago alone there are over 80 U.S. Navy ships and submarines, and over 1,500 navy aircraft lost beneath the waves. Many of these sites are war graves associated with major historic events which shaped the region. Others record the drastic changes in nautical and aviation history, and are of significant historical and archaeological interest. 

Potential and known submerged heritage sites for the region include: Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument—126; Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary—185; Fagatele Bay National Marine Sanctuary and American Samoa—59. 

Until recently, many submerged sites in remote Pacific locations, along with the history these sites possess, remained undiscovered and unknown. Today, marine conservation efforts are beginning to incorporate the preservation and appreciation of this legacy, the submerged cultural, archaeological, and historical resources which make up our common maritime heritage. 

An awareness of what we have lost in the ocean, and what that can tell us about ourselves, is part of our expanding marine stewardship.  NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program in the Pacific Islands focuses on the discovery, assessment, and preservation of submerged heritage resources which reflect the unique history of the region, and on sharing this special heritage with the public. 

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Revised February 22, 2023 by Sanctuaries Web Team | Contact Us | Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service
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