WAILUKU - Maui's sunken history, including the wrecks of World War II-era planes and landing craft, will be explored in a presentation Thursday.
University of Hawaii students learning underwater archaeology have spent the past two weeks diving, surveying and drawing the sites off South Maui, several of which have not been closely studied before. Their work could be used to monitor the condition of the sites, and to help local divers learn more about the wrecks and understand why they need to be preserved, said Hans VanTilburg, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maritime archaeologist who has been leading the project.
"These are great sites, and I'm glad Maui has these kinds of historical resources," he said. "You guys are lucky."
Students from the University of Hawaii’s Marine Option Program sketch and record information about a shipwreck site off South Maui. Working under maritime archaeologists, the students learn field techniques while also documenting World War II-era wrecks from Maalaea to Wailea. A presentation on the work will be offered at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Kihei.
J KUWABARA photo
VanTilburg will give a lecture on "History Below the Waves" at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, located at 726 S. Kihei Road. He will present the results of the students' work as well as photos of the project and sites.
Through the project, NOAA and UH staff, along with six students from the UH Marine Option Program, have dived to wrecks off South Maui that date to the 1940s. While all of the wrecks are previously known sites, "they haven't really been drawn in detail before," VanTilburg said.
The drawings and surveys of the sites will be used to establish a "baseline," documenting how the sites' condition changes over time, and how they deteriorate either due to natural causes or human looting.
"The maps they're doing are a record of the site, a snapshot," he said.
The students, including two from University of Hawaii Maui College, one from the Big Island and three from Oahu, are studying maritime archaeology field techniques. Before getting to work on the historic sites, they went to a sunken sailboat off Maalaea to practice their underwater drawing skills, VanTilburg said.
"The rest of the sites are all World War II era," he said.
They include two sunken aircraft, a Hellcat and a Helldiver, and two amphibious landing craft.
Because of Hawaii's role as a training site for the U.S. military during World War II, the islands' have a wealth of sunken ships, landing craft and planes, many of which have still not been discovered, VanTilburg said.
"There were a lot of planes lost in Hawaiian waters, and only a handful are known so far," he said.
The landing craft, which had tracks like tanks, could transport troops from ships onto land, and then drive up onto the beach and farther inland. A number of the landing craft now rest off South Maui, where they sank during training exercises more than 70 years ago, he said.
"This was a combat landing area, and they would invade the beaches over and over again," he said.
The wreck sites have historical significance, not just because of the way the war and military presence shaped Hawaii's history, but because the techniques soldiers practiced here, including amphibious landing and naval aviation, were critical to the outcome of the war and forever changed how the modern military would operate.
"Both of those were really practiced here in Hawaii, and that's why there's so many of these resources around," he said.
The surveys by students off Maui are part of a larger inventory of maritime heritage resources being done by NOAA, he noted. Here, the research could be used by the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary to determine how the protection of historical underwater sites should be incorporated into the sanctuary's management plan, he said.
But while the sites may already be known to local divers, VanTilburg said his group would not be distributing information about their exact locations.
"There's always a question of how accessible these sites should be," he said.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.