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NOWRAMP 2002

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Shipwreck Hunt
Written By Carlos Eyles
Underwater Photography by Jim Watt
September 15, 2002


Lightning storms ignited the sky off to the south en route to Maro Reef last night. A crew member said he hadn't seen lightning in Hawai‘i for five years and wondered what the portent of the display would bring.

I wake early, before dawn and sit on the bow. It is still quite dark, the only light emanates from the highest clouds, painting the sky in brush strokes of grays and blacks, an ill wind blows out of the west. For the first time on this trip a dark spirit reveals itself. We are heading directly into high, shadowy cumulus clouds now glowing like the head of a madman. The portent of ominous weather surrounds us, and the swell seems to build as the sun nears the horizon. Now, a stillness before the sun and great clouds appear as if exposed, white, like great monoliths of doom. We grind forward into this same city of cumulus. To the north a grand squall, gray curtains of rain from sky to sea. The sun has been knocking on horizon's door, and cannot bust it open from the density of the clouds. Like a stranger who has entered the room unseen. This morning is in total contrast to yesterday morning.

It is the sea, my friend, fickle, and unforgiving, doing as she pleases always on a grand scale. Never get too comfortable, it could be your undoing.

Today we depart from the norm, whatever that is, and will accompany Dr. Hans Van Tillburg, former Director of Maritime Archeology and History at the University of Hawai‘i, on a shipwreck hunt. We are taking two zodes (short for zodiacs, the hard bottom inflatable that number six on this vessel.) We will be looking for the 528-foot Navy oil tanker that went down in 1957 due to navigation error. Hans is here on the Rapture for, among other maritime tasks, to make a list of all naval ships that have gone down in Hawaiian waters, a rather daunting undertaking. We all have high hopes this morning for finding the vessel. Hans has three sets of coordinates, one off a satellite fix, and they all read the wreck to be in a very small area; no problem. The site lies on this the largest coral reef in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which, for the most part, is unexposed save for a few large coral Maro Reef.outcroppings that produce breaking waves. It is a wonderful place for the scientists to spend time for the reefs are rich and shallow. (Dr. Karla McDermid professor of science at University of Hawai‘i Hilo was as excited as scientists get this evening when she told me that her REA team found a very rare seaweed today, Sporochnus sp, a delicate brown twig like weed with golden pompoms of filaments at the tips of each branch, usually found in deep water). However, other than a search for seaweed and coral, I would not, as a Captain of any ship, want to veer off course any where near this reef system. You would never see it coming, and by the time you did it would be too late. Maro Reef is a stone cold 'ship killer.' In addition to that, we are as removed from the world as one can imagine. Maro Reef may not be the end of the Earth, but you can see it from here. In speaking with Captain Scott McClung, much of this area is uncharted, in fact some of the soundings date back to Captain James Cook some two hundred years ago. By far, this is the most dangerous stretch of water in the entire Hawaiian chain. Hawai‘i itself is thousands of miles from any mainland and we are getting close to a thousand miles from Hawai‘i. To lose a ship here would be tantamount to one long drift in a life boat with little hope of being found. Hans confirms my thoughts that, yes, this place has eaten its share of ships, and names two schooners the Two Brothers and the McNear that went down on these reefs. Actually any mariner worth his salt steers well clear of this area for obvious reasons. Even our own ship the Rapture anchored far off these reefs, six miles. And now, in building seas we head out for the wreck sites.

We arrive somewhere inside the lagoon in water silted up and really undividable. Hans is already there in his zode checking the depth. "It's around here someplace," he says rather optimistically. Maro Reef with Omilu.I jump in to take a look around. The water is spooky, very dirty and I have no sense of depth or a feel for the place at all. Brian Hauk, our safety diver, is with me and I make a free dive to see if the visibility opens up further down. It's like swimming in a sand storm. I get no clue at all where the bottom is, and turn around at sixty feet, out of breath and uncomfortable. Brian tells me that it was weird to see someone dive down on a breath hold and just disappear as if swallowed up. The rest of the Documentation team jumps in and we snorkel around over the bearing sites to see if anything turns up-- a fish, anything that would indicate some other structure was down there. We make three passes and feeling the futility of the mission, give up. Hans and his team make a dive, and come up empty.

This result is precisely why there is ship wreck salvagers, those big ships get awfully small in this large sea, even when you think you know where it is located. The first salvagers were Greek. The Romans would base their pay scale, a part of the haul, on how deep the divers had to dive. It appears that my Documentation team is unable to cut it as salvage divers, so we make the best decision of the morning, to stop for lunch.

Shallow reef with Manini.Finding calm water, we eat then pull into a submerged rather non-descript reef and 'jump.' As reefs go it is not all that spectacular, it is shallow and silted up, certainly not the clear water we have been experiencing all week long. The reef is extensive, but it is small in terms of depth and makes for a relaxing dive. In such a place, in the smallness of it I become the child again, playing in the sandbox, in the center of the universe. I am caught up in the delicate world of tiny fish and beautiful corals, and it fills my soul in the way a child is filled when left to his own devices. I dive for a couple of leisure hours then return to the zode refreshed and content with what had all the portent of a fiasco filled day.

On our return to the Rapture I spot some sooty terns 'working' the water, we run over and I jump in thinking I might come across a Three Galapagos Sharks at Maro Reef.bait ball and aku (bonita) underneath the bait. The water is silt-filled and I can't see five feet in front of me. Nevertheless I swim towards the mayhem going on thirty feet in front of me. From the boat come shouts of "sharks" and there is nothing more unnerving than to be in water where you can scarcely see your hand and be in the middle of a shark feeding frenzy. To the hoots of my cronies I make it back to the boat in about twenty seconds and hop in. We check out the sharks and there are three that we can see working the surface. Never get too comfortable, my friend, it could be your undoing.


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