Issue 15.1: February / March 2012

Sea Hunt

Story by Paul Wood

Photos by Dana Edmunds


From shore the sea looks empty. That’s an illusion caused by water, which pulls its cold blue cover over 70 percent of the planet’s surface. In Hawai‘i one man who deeply understands what’s hidden below the water is Hans Van Tilburg, professor of the maritime history of this region. For the past twenty years he has explored and documented sunken steamships, whalers, sampans, aircraft, subs, schooners, tall ships and gunboats throughout the main Hawaiian Islands, the Northwest chain and American Samoa. History professor turned underwater explorer, he has followed the advice of his fictional counterpart, Indiana Jones: “If you want to be a good archeologist, you gotta get out of the library.”


When I raise this Indiana Jones comparison, Hans and I are strapping ourselves into scuba gear, bobbing in a small dive boat before dawn with fourteen other people in Ma‘alaea Bay off the South Maui shoreline. He grins. (For such a serious scholar, Hans has a very buoyant response to things. Maybe that’s what happens to people who spend a lot of time floating underwater.) Then he exclaims, “Yes, but Indiana Jones was a thief! He was out there grabbing artifacts from other cultures.”


The very idea of sticky-fingered scholarship runs counter to Hans’ mission as the maritime heritage coordinator for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries in the Pacific Islands, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. Preservation—that’s Hans’ purpose. Through the University of Hawai‘i’s Marine Options Program (MOP), he trains students in techniques of underwater archeology—sketching with pencil on Mylar paper, measuring with transect tapes and folding rulers, photographing but rarely lifting a thing to the upper world.



The big blue: NOAA maritime archeologist Hans Van Tilburg has traveled all over Hawai‘i documenting and exploring ocean wrecks. Here he’s pictured with a Pisces V, a three-person submersible run by the Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory; it allows him to reach depths that SCUBA gear won’t. Still, he says, “nothing beats a live diver.”

While I push my feet through the legs of a wetsuit, Hans praises the dive shop that discovered the wreck we are about to explore. B&B Scuba in Kihei took a cautious, preservation-minded approach to revealing the site after owner Brad Varney heard about it from some local fishermen in January 2010. Varney checked with NOAA, ascertained the history of the wreck and made sure there were no complications with human remains or historical or environmental sensitivities before adding the site to his company’s list of dive options. His crew is diligent about telling dive clients to leave the wreck as is.


“We’re going to get a look at a World War II Helldiver, a dive bomber that’s been sitting on a silty bottom under fifty feet of water since September 1944.” As soon as Hans says this, everybody else on our dive boat shuts up. He isn’t the captain; he’s just another diver, but everybody knows this is special—as luck would have it, they’re going to dive with a professor.


“You’ll see that the engine has broken away from the cowling. The vertical stabilizer has detached, and it’s lying in the sand. That’s the result of a defect that forced the pilot to ditch the plane. The pilot and his radio operator/gunner had time to get out before it sank. The wreck is fairly intact. For example, you can still see the instruments in the cockpit.”


He explains: the Helldiver, or Curtiss SB2C, was designed to launch from the deck of an aircraft carrier, plunge like a meteor to drop its bombs, then pull out and get back to the ship. The plane couldn’t tolerate such stresses. The Helldiver had a huge rudder assembly to keep it from stalling when it reached the bottom of the dive. Navy pilots called it the “big-tailed beast” or, riffing off the code SB2C, “Sonof- a-Bitch Second Class.” In the pell-mell manufacturing pace of that war, however, pilots had to make do with what they got. The Helldiver we are about to visit was on a training run in 1944 and headed back to the runway in Pu‘unene when the tail buckled. The two men on board had to swim for their lives.


Geared up, Hans and I jump into the dawn-lit sea and enter a vague world of blue glimmer and shadow. Even twenty feet down, there are no edges. But at thirty feet the sea floor begins to materialize and with it the cruciform shape of the plane. We hover around it. It’s not a big plane: It could almost fit in a living room. The hinged wings are fully extended, and I see square ammunition hatches on the top of each wing. The cockpit and gunner’s pit are fully exposed, the big tail flopped on its side settling into salt-and-pepper grainy silt.


An entire ecosystem of creatures has preceded our arrival. Antler corals branch upward from the old fuselage, crowned by a swirling crowd of dascyllus fish. Needlestiff urchins quiver as though electrified, and spaghetti worms stretch their long white filaments languorously over crusted equipment.


Using hand signals, Hans catches my attention. We hover upside down looking into the crusty cockpit—a good place to meet some moray eels, I think. Then I see his purpose. The instrument panel has been plundered, the instruments ripped out. The silent ocean world—the world of Hans Van Tilburg— contradicts our own so beautifully, and yet here is ours right before my eyes.


Afterward, sitting on the dive boat, I watch the Maui shoreline warm itself in the brightness of morning—the dry foothills of West Maui behind the condos and rock breakwalls of Ma‘alaea, the cane-field green of the isthmus, Haleakala towering to the right and the township of Kihei turning into resorts at Wailea.


My imagination shifts to the identical scene in 1944, when Hawai‘i was preparing for an invasion that never came. Aerial squadrons roared through this very sky. Bombs blasted that island there. Amphibious craft disgorged helmeted youth rehearsing for terrible experiences in the South Pacific. I see history.



In Davy Jones’ locker: Van Tilburg first dove this wreck off Maui in February 2010: It’s a World War II Helldiver that’s been sitting on the ocean floor off Ma‘alaea since 1944. “When people look out at the ocean, they see a flat blue plain,” says Van Tilburg. “That’s an illusion.”

After we reach shore, at brunch, I get Hans talking about himself. He grew up in California. His dad, an Indiana Hoosier of Dutch ancestry, liked boats and introduced Hans to sailing as a kid. They took a diving course together when Hans was 11. Then the father, preferring sea level, gave his dive gear to the son.


Hans worked as a diving instructor and science diver but mostly supported himself and his family as a carpenter in the San Francisco Bay Area. He also connected to Hawai‘i thanks to his mother’s family, who are Chinese and live in the Pearl City area. (His forebear in the Islands, Hans tells me, was the first naturalized Chinese citizen of the Hawaiian kingdom.)


After earning his bachelor’s in geography from UC Berkeley and his master’s in maritime history and nautical archeology from East Carolina University, Hans landed at the University of Hawai‘i, where he completed his doctorate and still teaches as a complement to his position at NOAA.


An avid historian, he loves the stories of sites he has explored. The USS Saginaw, a Navy wreck from 1870, is one of his favorites. A hybrid sailing vessel and paddlewheel steamer that was only 150 feet long, the Saginaw was the first warship ever built on the US West Coast. During the Civil War it defended Union steam liners out of San Francisco from raids by Confederate ships. The little ship represented its country in China, Japan, Mexico and also Alaska when the United States purchased that vast tract of wilderness. On its last run the Saginaw went to fetch some Bostonian harbor-blasters on Midway Island but wound up driven onto the reef at Kure Atoll.


Reports say that all ninety-three passengers wound up on Kure, where they sat for two months eating albatrosses. Five volunteers made an open-boat voyage to Hawai‘i, a month-long ordeal during which rough seas swept away the gig’s oars and spoiled all of the men’s provisions. By the time they reached Kaua‘i’s north shore, four of the men were so weak that they drowned in the island’s rough shore break attempting to land. The fifth had enough strength to survive —according to Hans, the man’s stamina derived from his occasional swigs of sperm-whale lamp oil. This man made his way to Honolulu and appealed to Kamehameha V for assistance. The kingdom sent a vessel to Kure and rescued the castaways.


In 2003 Hans led a team of marine archeologists to Kure, and they discovered the Saginaw’s remains by following a trail of metal artifacts. Any wood from the wreck was long gone, munched away by shipworms. This was a “high-energy” site, meaning the divers were tossed around by ocean surges under a whitewater surface. “Shipwrecks,” Hans observes, “tend to happen in nasty places.” Still, the team managed to document the ship’s metal parts, anchors and cannons. In 2010 Hans published a lively history of the boat, A Civil War Gunboat in Pacific Waters: Life on Board USS Saginaw.


Whaling disasters yield some of the best Hawai‘i shipwreck stories. For example, in 1822 the British whaler Pearl and its consort Hermes both collided with a reef in the as-yet uncharted Northwest chain, near a place that’s now called Pearl and Hermes Atoll. The ships were out to find the “Japan Grounds,” a midoceanic region said to be teeming with sperm whales. Instead the crews found themselves stranded on a bare slip of land. Unlike the Saginaw castaways, these sailors were able to scavenge beams and materials from the wrecks. They built their own escape vessel, a thirty-ton schooner that they named Deliverance. Before they could launch it, help arrived, and most of the stranded sailors chose to be rescued. But twelve of them, including Deliverance’s chief carpenter, James Robinson, stayed loyal to their schooner and eventually sailed it to Honolulu. In this way, disaster turned to good fortune: Robinson stayed in Honolulu, which was then scarcely more than a village, where he started Hawai‘i’s first modern shipyard.


The late nineteenth century gave us interisland steamships and plenty of shoreline mishaps around the main Islands. Shipwreck Beach on Lana‘i’s remote north shore became a kind of dumping ground for derelict vessels of that era. (In 2009 Hans took a crew of university students to camp on that shore and sharpen their maritime archeology skills.) World War II left us a trove of sunken artifacts, too. Divers and fishermen often spot them. NOAA fisheries crews, who haul debris out of the Northwest chain—“That’s heroic work they do,” says Hans—will sometimes happen upon a site. So will the deep-sea operators of Hawai‘i Undersea Research Laboratory (its quaint acronym: HURL), who in 2002 discovered a Japanese midget submarine sunk off Pearl Harbor. Sometimes Hans and crew will search for debris using magnetometers or side scan sonar. “But nothing,” he says, “beats a live diver on an interpretive exploration.” And the point is that there’s a lot down there.


“When people look out at the ocean, they see a flat blue plain,” says Hans. “That’s an illusion. Our footprint extends into the sea. The ocean is a window.”


In Hawai‘i that footprint is far bigger than most people think. “Some four hundred to five hundred vessels have been lost in Hawaiian waters,” says Hans. Also, nearly 1,500 naval aircraft now lie underwater, according to the US Navy’s “crash cards.” Only about two dozen of those have been discovered. Most of Hawai‘i’s underwater wrecks have never been explored. Why not promote a “heritage trail” of undersea exploration? Hans suggests. “Our wreck-diving tourism industry is kind of undersold.


“What I tell young kids,” he concludes, “is that we don’t really live on islands. We live on mountains.” And if you pulled back that cold blue cover of water, Hans says, “we’d be the largest maritime museum in the world.”