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Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

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podcast Maritime Heritage (Diving Deeper podcast, 09.09.09)

Lost Whaling Shipwreck Discovered in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

A diver examines an anchor at the Two Brothers shipwreck site.

A diver examines an anchor at the Two Brothers shipwreck site.

Maritime heritage archaeologists working with NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries recently found the wreckage of a famous 1800s Nantucket whale ship, Two Brothers. The wreckage was located on a reef off French Frigate Shoals, nearly six hundred miles (966 kilometers) northwest of Honolulu, in the remote Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

This is the first discovery of a wrecked whaling ship from Nantucket, Mass., the birthplace of America's whaling industry. All of America's whaling ships are now gone, broken up, or sunk, except one, the National Historic Landmark Charles W. Morgan at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut.

The Story of Two Brothers

Two Brothers was captained by George Pollard Jr., whose previous Nantucket whaling vessel, Essex, was rammed and sunk by a whale in the South Pacific, inspiring Herman Melville's famous book, Moby-Dick. Pollard gained national notoriety after the Essex sinking, when he and a handful of his crew resorted to cannibalism in order to survive their prolonged ordeal drifting on the open ocean.

Capt. Pollard went to sea again as the Master of Two Brothers. He was likely the last person to think "lightning would strike twice," but it did. On the night of Feb. 11, 1823, Two Brothers hit a shallow reef off French Frigate Shoals. Pollard did not want to abandon ship, but his crew pleaded with him and they clung to small boats for survival during a long and harrowing night. The next morning they were rescued by the crew of another Nantucket whaler.

For the past 188 years, the wreckage of Two Brothers has been lost on the ocean floor. The vessel was part of a fleet of several hundred whaling ships that were part of America's economic and political expansion into the Pacific, transforming the region, including Hawaii, both economically and culturally, and resulting in the near extinction of many whale species. The whaling fleets were also largely responsible for early exploration of the Indian Ocean and the polar regions.

A trypot at the Two Brothers shipwreck site.

A trypot at the Two Brothers shipwreck site. Trypots were large cast iron pots used to melt whale blubber to produce oil.

A Rare Discovery

In 2008, maritime archaeologists onboard the NOAA Ship Hi’ialakai discovered the initial clues about the resting place of the whaler. Divers first spotted a large anchor, followed by three trypots (cast iron pots for melting whale blubber to produce oil), another large anchor, hundreds of bricks and the remains of the ship's rigging. Those artifacts conclusively indicated the wreckage was from a whaler dating to the early 19th century. Subsequent expeditions in 2009 and 2010 resulted in the discovery of more artifacts, including blubber hooks, five whaling harpoon tips, three whaling lances, four cast-iron cooking pots, and ceramics and glass indicating a U.S. origin. This helped confirm the dating of the wreckage.
Additional scholarly research provided first-hand accounts from Two Brothers crew members, including an approximate location of where the ship grounded, which matched the location of the wreckage.

"Discoveries like the Two Brothers serve an important role in connecting geographically separated regions and communities (New England and the Pacific), the past to the present, and provide context and better understanding about human decisions that have altered the planet," said James Delgado, director, NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program.