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The Unseen Landscape: Hawai?i's Underwater History

Hans Van Tilburg

A first-of-its-kind study of Hawai?i’s underwater cultural heritage has been completed. The vast inventory of shipwrecks and submerged aircrafts in Hawaiian waters serve as an underwater history museum waiting to be discovered. HPR’s Ku?uwehi Hiraishi reports.

I met Hans Van Tilburg at the Makai Research Pier in Waim?nalo. 

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Makai Research Pier in Waimanalo as seen from Baby Makapu'u.

Along the shore to our right, a dozen or so surfers are catching waves at Baby Makapu?u, to our left a family of four is fishing off the pier. But he is much more interested in what’s underwater.

Credit Tane Casserly / NOAA ONMS
Dr. Hans Van Tilburg inspects a sunken derrick at the former site of the Waimanalo Plantation landing. Prior to construction of any roads over the pali (cliffs), transportation was by small steamer to Honolulu. The beach landing served the nearby sugar mill, completed by plantation owner John Cummins in 1881.

“There’s actually the remains of the old steamship landing. In this area, there were steamship landings servicing local plantations, like the Waim?nalo Plantation right over there,” says Van Tilburg, “You know there was Bellow’s, Bellow’s Air Force Base, and so there are aircraft located right out there. Actually, in Hawai?i there's over 1,475 naval aircraft underwater that we know of.”

Credit Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
Maritime Historian and Underwater Archaeologist Dr. Hans Van Tilburg led research efforts to inventory underwater cultural resources in Hawaiian waters. Here he is at the Makai Research Pier in Waimanalo.

Van Tilburg is a maritime historian and underwater archeologist for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He oversaw a three-year study to inventory underwater cultural resources in Hawaiian waters. So everything from the remains of ancient Hawaiian fishponds to shipwrecks make up what he calls the submerged historical landscape.

Fishpond outer wall and interior fish traps at Kaloko Honokohau, Hawai'i Island. Loko i'a or native Hawaiian fishponds are documented as part of the study because of it's cultural and historical significance as well as the potential impact by proposed coastal development projects.

“All of that history, for the most part is unseen. Because for hundreds of thousands of years you know sailors aren't writing books, they're sailing. And their history and their legacy is lost in shipwrecks under the sea,” says Van Tilburg, “Unless you find them and interpret them, those stories go untold.”

Credit Hawaii State Archives
Hawaii State Archives
The SS Kaua'i lost at Mahukona Port in 1913. The wooden-hulled ship went onto the reef while carrying railroad parts and bags of sugar between islands. The steamer wreck site and the ruins of the historic Mahukona port itself combine to represent aspects of a major era in Hawai'i's economic development - the plantation period.

The study recorded more than 2,100 known or reported submerged resources, and is the first comprehensive assessment of Hawai?i’s underwater cultural heritage. Something Kiersten Faulkner says helps supplement a wealth of land based history in the Hawaiian Islands.

“So this new study on submerged cultural resources brings the ocean into that dialogue and into that understanding of being an island people and what that means when you’re surrounded by water,” says Faulkner.

Faulkner is the Executive Director of the Historic Hawai?i Foundation. The foundation focuses on historic preservation, which includes underwater resources.

Credit Hans Van Tilburg / NOAA ONMS
Divers map a wreck site near Maui. Pictured here is a highly deteriorated amphibious craft used by the U.S. Army and lost during training for Operation Forager and the invasion of Saipan in June 1944.

“So what’s nice also about this study is it talks about when it needs to be known and when it needs to be held confidential or quiet, and only known by the families or the caretaker groups,” says Faulkner.

“For shallow water sites that are accessible, there might be an occasional diver who feels like some of that could be personal property and that’s a little bit of a problem,” says Van Tilberg, “You know visitation is great, we encourage that, but these are protected sites and things shouldn’t be taken off of them”

Van Tilburg says not everything underwater is historically significant. But this study is a first step in raising awareness of historical resources that require preservation. That could involve projects like undersea cables, channel dredging, or offshore energy development.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at
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