By Jean Souza

Maritime heritage resources in Hawai‘i. Contributed photo

In my work at Kaua‘i Ocean Discovery, I have the opportunity to learn and share with the public interesting pieces about Kaua‘i and about the experts in our greater community. This article is about a topic that is not well known on Kaua‘i, maritime heritage resources.

“The ocean provides for us in many ways, and holds clues to our historical past as well. Every shipwreck has a story to tell,” said Hans Van Tilburg, Maritime Heritage Coordinator for the Pacific Islands Region, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.

Van Tilburg was originally introduced to the ocean on board his father’s sloop at the age of eight and started diving in 1972. He has a degree in maritime archaeology and history from East Carolina University, and a PhD in Asia Pacific history from the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, where he ran a graduate certificate program in maritime archaeology. Van Tillburg was hired by NOAA in 2003. Here, he shares his knowledge with us.

Hans Van Tilburg, Maritime Heritage Coordinator for the Pacific Islands Region, NOAA, is seen here at work. Contributed photo

Maritime heritage is the wide variety of elements that represent our human connections to our ocean and Great Lakes areas. These can include ancient submerged habitation sites and coastal aquaculture systems, shipwrecks and submerged aircraft, the remains of harbors and landings, navigational aids, anchorages, and other types of nearshore infrastructure. Maritime Cultural Landscapes allow us to understand this broad heritage in a comprehensive and holistic fashion, in relationship to the marine ecosystem.

On the Trail of Our Maritime Past

The people of Hawai‘i have an intimate connection to the sea. This connection is reflected in a variety of properties and important locations such as coastal villages and trails, plantation landings, lighthouses, inter-island steamship wrecks, and many other historic and cultural resources in Hawai‘i. These heritage resources, both pre- and post-Western contact, comprise a unique record of the past. Discovering and researching elements of this maritime heritage often reveals stories not captured in any book.

Respecting Hawaiian Cultural Landscapes

Hawaiians hold a unique breadth and depth of understanding of the landscape (including the ocean) to which they are connected. This knowledge reflects generations of engagement and interaction with specific places and resources. Understanding these connections is crucial to protecting the coastal and marine areas of the six moku of Kaua‘i from undue impacts. Guidance for cultural landscape studies has become part of the sanctuary system’s community engagement efforts (A Guidance Document for Characterizing Native Hawaiian Cultural Landscapes 2017).

Maritime heritage resources in Hawai‘i. Contributed photo

Plantation Days, Island Landings

The heyday of the plantation period coincides with steam propulsion and the revolution in marine transportation. And with the increased traffic came lighthouses and other navigational aids. The lack of protected harbors, though, led to the creation of numerous wire rope landings, moorings in small bays, and exposed beach piers. The island of Kaua‘i had over 15 public and private landing locations. With passing storms and changing winds, servicing these plantations could become hazardous business. Numerous plantation-era vessels were lost at their moorings, or while passing close to channels and reefs. The history of this busy agricultural trade is written along the coasts of the island by the remnants of plantation piers and landings, the submerged anchors and mooring systems, and the wrecked ships themselves.

Maritime heritage resources in Hawai‘i. Contributed photo

Impacts from World War II on Kaua‘i

The islands’ plantation economy was disrupted forever by the surprise attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Soon, Hawai‘i became the major supply and repair base for the Pacific Fleet. The beaches and oceans and skies above the islands were also major training areas during the war years. Kaua‘i provided at least seven training and impact areas as well as two military airfields (Mana AAF/NAF and Burns AAF). Additionally, the island’s beaches were used for amphibious training. The remains of several military amphibious vehicles can be found today on the leeward coast. The defenses of Kaua‘i also included gun batteries near harbors and airfields and 150 machinegun pillboxes on beaches, manned by three battalions of Kaua‘i citizen volunteers. Shore defenses and landing craft wrecks and submerged aircraft are all part of the military defense landscape of the Hawaiian Islands.

Maritime Past of Kaua‘i

Many divers are familiar with the known shipwrecks in waters of Kaua‘i: the Hawaiian vessel Ha‘aheo ‘o Hawai‘i lost at Hanalei Bay in 1824 (excavated by the Smithsonian Museum and now on display at Kaua‘i Museum); the Chilean bark Ivanhoe lost at Port Allen in 1915; the freighter Luckenbach lost near Līhu‘e in 1951. The Maritime Cultural Landscape approach, though, opens the door to new ways of knowing the maritime past: the traces of the plantation-era historic landing sites, the traditional knowledge and important places of Hawaiian cultural landscapes. These provide a better understanding of the broad range of heritage resources and locations.

NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program

NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program has been active in supporting outreach and education opportunities in maritime heritage. From hosting local maritime symposia, to conducting both public and academic training courses in maritime archaeology, to writing maritime content for books, articles and websites, the Maritime Heritage Program seeks to encourage community engagement with sanctuary sites in the appreciation of our maritime past. For more information on the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ archaeological, historical, and cultural initiatives, please contact Maritime Heritage Resources Links

Submerged historic resources in Hawai‘i:

Native Hawaiian maritime cultural landscape of Hawai‘i:

Historic Hawai‘i Foundation video:

Maritime heritage resources of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument:

Hawai‘i Maritime history:

  • Jean Souza serves as the on-site manager of Kaua‘i Ocean Discovery at Kukui Grove Center and is a Program Specialist with the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. She can be contacted at


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