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Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument
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Mission Blog: August 18, 2009
Exploring Pearl and Hermes Atoll

By Elizabeth Keenan, Scientist, Diver

Archaeologist Kekuewa Kikiloi taking field notes at a small valley on Nihoa.

Turtles hauled up on the shore at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. (Photo:Wayne Levin/NOAA) Click on the thumbnail for a larger image.

We woke up on August 17th to calm seas at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. This atoll is my favorite place in the Northwestern Hawaiian chain, and I was really excited to take my team of photographers to some of the great places I have found over the years. The first day the ship was going to be on the south side of the 15 mile wide atoll. We headed out to do our morning dive on some spur and groove reef, where sand channels run in valleys between long fingers of reef. The reef was covered in brightly colored fish, and swimming among them were a few large ulua. Ulua is the Hawaiian name for the giant trevally, a huge jack that is very common up in the NWHI. The ulua are always curious of divers, and fun to have circling around. We also saw some rare and endemic fish. There were many of the beautiful masked angel fish, which is almost all white, but the females have a black mask on their face, and later in life they turn to males and have a bright yellow mask. We also saw the bandit angelfish, which is also white, but has a black band running from its face through to its tail. The bandit angelfish is endemic to Hawaii, and is found nowhere else on earth. The Hawaiian chain is unique in having so many endemic species.

Archaeologist Kekuewa Kikiloi taking field notes at a small valley on Nihoa.

Reef crest at Pearl and Hermes Atoll. (Photo:Wayne Levin/NOAA)

After we finished our second dive we met up with Kelly Gleason, the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument's Maritime Archeologist. Kelly was going to show us the site of a shipwreck named the Pearl. The Pearl was a whaling ship which crashed on the reef with its traveling partner, the Hermes, in 1822. The crew of the ships survived, and in a tale of amazing courage and resourcefulness, some members of the crew built a small schooner out of the wreckage and opted to sail back to Honolulu. The rest of the crew was rescued by another vessel, the Earl of Morby. The atoll was named after the lost ships, but the shipwrecks were discovered in 2004 by NOAA's CRED marine debris team. What is left of the ships is in shallow water, and we snorkeled over the 200 year old artifacts in amazement. Down below us were several trypots, and scattered bricks. The trypots are the large cauldrons that they used to boil down the blubber from the whales. There were also long nails, pieces of wood, big anchors, and other bits and pieces. After all that time, it was incredible how much remained in the shallow, high wave energy area.

Archaeologist Kekuewa Kikiloi taking field notes at a small valley on Nihoa.

View of North Island at Pearl and Hermes Atoll.(Photo:Wayne Levin/NOAA)

On our second day at Pearl and Hermes we explored the north shore. We dove on some more spur and groove reef, and this time we were circled by over 50 big ulua. When we came up from our dive we decided to drive around the shallow reef and head into the lagoon to check out the northern islands. The shades of blue in the lagoon are beautiful, ranging from deep indigo to the lightest pale baby blue. The white sand islets next to the blue water make some very nice scenery for lunch. We circled around the small island admiring the many birds, the giant green sea turtles, and the occasional resting monk seal. As we sat in the calm water I thought how lucky we were to get a few calm weather days and see some of the best of Pearl and Hermes.


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