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2008 Papahanaumokuakea Maritime Heritage Expedition
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Mission Blog: August 16, 2008
Survivor Island

By Tane Casserley, National Maritime Heritage Coordinator
Office of National Marine Sanctuaries


Historic sketch of the USS Saginaw survivors' camp drawn by Lieutenant Commander Sicard.

Historic sketch of the USS Saginaw survivors' camp drawn by Lieutenant Commander Sicard.

It’s been 171 years since the first recorded castaways, the crew of the whaler Gledstanes, struggled for survival on Green Island at Kure Atoll in1837. Kure’s reefs have always had a voracious appetite for shipwrecks, and in the nineteenth century it was not uncommon for US Navy ships passing through the area to swing by Ocean Island, as it was then known, to check for shipwreck survivors. This pursuit is what put USS Saginaw so close to the atoll when it struck the reef in 1870. Today these reefs are still eating ships like a vindictive sea beast. One of the most recent wrecks is the Japanese fishing vessel Hoei Maru whose torn hull fragments jut out of the water in Kure’s deceptively tranquil lagoon like a forlorn lover beckoning other ships to join her lonely existence.

Today, the maritime archaeology team had the opportunity to visit Green Island, where the Gledstanes, Parker, Saginaw, Dunnottar Castle, and numerous other shipwreck survivors once struggled for so long to eek out a meager subsistence waiting for rescue. Our plan was to locate the remnants of their camps.

Cynthia Vanderlip and her team: Kure Atoll's modern day survivors on the same beach depicted in the historic sketch.

Cynthia Vanderlip and her team: Kure Atoll's modern day survivors on the same beach depicted in the historic sketch.

What became readily apparent after walking the beach for five minutes with my brand new shoes and instantly raising a blister the size of Texas was that everything I learned about surviving on a desert island, which I, of course, learned from reality shows, had to be completely thrown out the window. No medic was going to come running, there were no band aids handy, except in the first aid kit on our jet boat that I was too embarrassed to walk over to, and a cold glass of water wasn’t readily available to cool my parched throat after attempting to stifle my moan of pain into an exaggerated cough. You had to be resourceful to survive, you had to be hardy, and you had to have the will to live to see your loved ones again. These survivors deserve our respect.

Jason Raupp uses a metal detector to search for buried artifacts from wreck survivor camps.

Jason Raupp uses a metal detector to search for buried artifacts from wreck survivor camps.

On the beach we were warmly greeted by Cynthia Vanderlip, Kure Atoll National Wildlife Refuge Manager, and her team of state- and federal researchers and volunteers, who gave us a tour of their facilities and instructed us on the protocols so we wouldn’t disturb any of the marine life or nesting birds on the island. Cynthia told us how Kure is an extremely dynamic environment with constantly shifting sand dunes and vegetation layers. With these words of advice, we gingerly began the survey with a metal detector, being very mindful of our footing and shielding our eyes anytime a bird erupted out of the bushes with what I decided was a mad appetite for my eyeballs. And although we never found any conclusive evidence of survivors’ camps and were constantly stalked by what I can only describe as a pterodactyl, but what Cynthia insisted was a frigate bird, we were honored to visit this very special place that acted as a haven for so many.

To ask us questions, you can email the team at: sanctuaries@noaa.gov and we will answer your questions within the blog, or in a live internet broadcast later in the cruise. Again, stay tuned for details.

 

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