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Divers find history beneath the waves at Shipwreck Beach, Lāna'i

Download a detailed brochure about the Shipwreck Beach project

The rough and treacherous north coast of Lāna`i within the ahupua`a or traditional land divisions of Paomai and Mahana, features the wrecks of many interisland steamships, vessels which once served the busy sugar plantations at the turn of the century. Now these sites are windows into Hawai`i’s maritime past.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries (ONMS) Pacific Islands Region (PIR) and University of Hawai`i (UH) Marine Option Program researchers recently completed an archaeological survey of an historic shipwreck on the island of Lāna`i, within an area known locally as Shipwreck Beach. The project, entitled “Return to Shipwreck Beach: A Coastal Resources Awareness Project,” was supported through by a grant from NOAA’s Preserve America Initiative and led by Dr. Hans Van Tilburg, Maritime Heritage Coordinator for the ONMS/PIR.

lina'i beach
(Photo: H. Van Tilburg/NOAA ONMS)
The site chosen for the 2009 survey is near Lae Wahie (firewood) point. A large encrusted double-cylinder steam engine and a massive steel boiler emerge from the surf (see adjacent photo). Beneath the surface, heavy cargo winches and anchor equipment lie scattered on the seafloor, surrounded by rigging and iron components. Ashore, the wooden frames, keelson, and hull planks are arranged in a chaotic pile. All of these features contain clues to the identity of the unknown vessel.  

lina'i beach
(Photo: J. Coney/NOAA ONMS)
Prior to starting the fieldwork, six UH students trained under the direction of Van Tilburg, learning the methods of basic maritime archaeology. The team also had a chance to dive into local archives at the Hawaiian Historical Society and Bernice P. Bishop Museum, and learn about 19th century steam technology at the O`ahu Train Museum.

Once on Lāna`i, the divers set up a remote base at Federation Camp, a series of beach shacks built in the 1940's by local plantation workers originally from the Philippines. From there they headed out on the daily five-mile trek, carrying all the survey and ocean equipment needed to-and-from the wreck site. (Proximity to shore allowed for free diving, so no heavy scuba tanks!) Measured sketches, created by the divers in the water, were transcribed onto the detailed site plan back at camp.

lina'i beach
(Photo: H. Van Tilburg/NOAA ONMS)
The residents of Lāna`i were also engaged in this survey. Students and parents from Lāna`i Elementary and High School assisted in shoreline work, and several other folks shared their knowledge of island history with the group. The Lāna`i Culture & Heritage Center will serve as one of the repositories for final project data. Before departing the island, the team made a final public presentation at the school’s cafeteria. 

lina'i beach
(Photo: J. Kuwabara/NOAA ONMS)
The survey data leads to two possible identifications for this shipwreck. The first possibility is the SS Mikihala, a 444-ton wooden-hulled steamship built at Port Blakely, Washington, in 1886 for the Inter Island Steam Navigation Company. The Mikihala was active for years on the Moloka`i-Lāna`i-Maui route. The ship was reported broken up in 1926. The second is the SS Kaiulani, a 384-ton wooden-hulled steamship built in Alameda, California, in 1899 for the Wilder Steam Navigation Company. The Kaiulani was partially dismantled in 1924, then the hulk was sold and used as a fish-receiving barge on Penguin Banks. Owners sometimes towed aging hulks to Shipwreck Beach for final disposal. Further research may solve the identity question.

Surveying these kinds of historic resources is a way to understand our past, and to better appreciate our connections to the sea. The 2009 Shipwreck Beach project provides an opportunity to learn about coastal resources, maritime archaeology, and historic preservation set in the context of this very special place. The NOAA ONMS/PIR and UH Marine Option Program project was conducted in collaboration with the Lāna`i Culture & Heritage Center, the Lāna`i Elementary and High School, the Lāna`i Archaeological Committee, Alu Like Inc., and the Coalition for a Drug Free Lāna`i.

For more information, contact Hans Van Tilburg at 808-397-2404 x264 or

lina'i beach
Site map created by students shows a portion of the steamship wreck site discovered at Shipwreck Beach.

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