Friday, August 15, 2008

Whaler Gledstanes' 1837 wreck found at Hawai'i's Kure Atoll

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have revealed another piece of their long history of shipwrecks: the remains of the British whaler Gledstanes, which broke up on the reef at Kure Atoll in 1837.

The ship's anchors, trypots and other parts have been lying amid the coral heads and patches of sand for more than 170 years—never found in part because Kure is so frightening to shipping that most folks try to stay clear.

(Image: A trypot from the Gledstanes lies on the sea floor at Kure Atoll. Trypots are the massive iron containers in which whale blubber was boiled down to oil. Credit: Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.)

The island has a long list of shipwrecks to its credit, including the Gledstanes, the whaler Parker in 1842, the 1870 wreck of the USS Saginaw, the 1886 wreck of the Dunottar Castle and a series of fishing and other boats.

The other islands of the archipelago are also sites of numerous shipwrecks. Pearl and Hermes Atoll is named for two whalers that went aground and ended their careers there.

A marine archaeology crew aboard the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai was specifically looking for evidence of the Gledstanes earlier this week, because they knew it had wrecked on this island. The work at Kure is part of a month-long marine archaeological survey that is trying to document shipwrecks within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which extends more than 1,000 miles from the waters between Kaua'i and Nihoa, past ten reefs, small islands and atolls, to the waters just west of Kure.

“Today was a great day to be a maritime archaeologist,” wrote monument marine archaeologist Kelly Gleason at the monument website on Aug. 13, 2008:

Archaeologists have looked for the Gledstanes before, but have been thwarted by weather, currents, surf and other issues. This year, conditions were better.

(Image: A diver documents a massive anchor wedged in the Kure Atoll reef. It is believed to have come from the British whaler Gledstanes. Credit: Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.)

“At the end of the first drift dive of the day, the team discovered a pile of iron ballast and some chain. The ballast led a trail into the dramatic spur-and-groove topography of the reef of Kure Atoll, where further artifacts were scattered as they wrecked in 1837. Four massive anchors, iron ballast, what appear to be two cannons and a trypot filled with bricks, copper sheathing and a fastening are all tucked into the dynamic grooves of the reef,” Gleason wrote.

The ship was destroyed, but its crew was able to make it ashore on one of the sandy islets within Kure's lagoon. There, they built a 38-foot boat and a small group of them sailed for help, managing to get to Honolulu, where arrangements were made to save the rest of the crew.

"The story of the Gledstanes and her survivors is limited, but adds to the important legacy of shipwreck survival stories at Kure Atoll,” said Hans Van Tilburg, maritime heritage coordinator for NOAA's National Marine Sanctuaries' Pacific Islands Region.

The researchers did a pile of research to give them an idea where to look in the six-miles-across lagoon.

Some details were provided by cruise participant Dee O'Regan, editor of Sea History Magazine, of the
National Maritime Historical Society.

“When Dr. Hans Van Tilburg began studying historical records for information on USS Saginaw’s wrecking event of 1870, he located a hand-drawn map that Saginaw’s survivors had made noting the location of the whaler Gledstanes on the east side of the atoll. Armed with an historical chart, notes, and a hand-held GPS, the team searched the spot thought most likely to hold the remains of the ship. After preliminary surface surveys, one dive and there it was. Remarkable,” O'Regan wrote in a blog posted at

Researchers are still looking for other ships, and are trying to identify wreck sites for which they have no clear identities.

© 2008 Jan TenBruggencate


Anonymous said...

What was the depth of the water at the wreck site?
How far from shore was the wreckage?

Jan T said...

The wreckage was found on the outer edge of the reef, as it approaches the shallows of the lagoon, where the underwater terrain rises fairly quickly with a topography of reefs cut by sandy-bottom channels. The upshot is that the wreckage would be scattered across a range of depths, generally on the outside of what someone on the surface would call the edge of the reef. That's my best assessment from the available information, not having talked to the archaeological team.
As to the distance from shore, that's a tricky question on an atoll. Kure, unlike O'ahu, is not a central island surrounded by reef. It is a vast lagoon, surrounded by a reef, and inside the lagoon's southern side are a couple of sandbar islands. The wreck, according to maps I've seen, is a couple of miles from the largest of the sandbar islands, Green Island.
Jane Resture's web page on Kure Atoll has a lot of information, including a small map that shows the rough configuration of the atoll, and the location of three of its known wrecks. Take a look at

Angelo Villagomez said...

Wow, that's a big anchor. One of the divers out here in Saipan recently found an anchor and we were speculating whether or not it was a whaling anchor:

Anonymous said...

This is a most amazing discovery. I'm a descendant of Thomas King who signed on the ship October 17, 1835 at the port of London. He was one of the crew members who, with Captain Brown of the Gledstanes and just a few others, sailed in the rescue boat to the main islands. There, the British consul tried to hire a ship with crew to rescue those who remained on the atoll. He finally resorted to buying a ship and hiring a crew "for the purpose of saving the lives of the unfortunate crew of the Gledstanes" which he reported to England November 16, 1837. My Hawaiian heritage link includes him.

bathmate said...

good posting.i like it. thank u. :)-


Anonymous said...

My Great Great Grandfather, Joseph Quixley, signed on to the Gledstanes with Captain Brown on October 17th, 1835, bound for the South Seas. He was an apprentice, indentured for 7 years, so was most likely on the ship when it was wrecked. Does anyone know if there is a list of the crew who were eventually rescued?

Ronald Hayman
Gold Coast

Jan T said...

Lacking contact information for you, Mr. Hayman, it's hard to help. But if you review our second story on the Gledstanes, you'll find the email of a NOAA researcher who might be able to assist. Clearly, you're not the first to ask about relatives on the ship. Here's the link:

Anonymous said...

Hi Jan
Many thanks for the reply. I will try and contact the researcher, who I assume is Kelly Gleason, with what I know.

My email is