Mokupāpapa (literally, flat island) is the name given to Kure Atoll by officials of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the 19th century. (Papahānaumokuākea) It is approximately 1,200-miles northwestward of Honolulu and 56-miles west of Midway Islands. The International Date Line lies approximately 100-miles to the west.
Kure Atoll is the most northwestern island in the Hawaiian chain and occupies a singular position at the “Darwin Point:” the northern extent of coral reef development, beyond which coral growth cannot keep pace with the rate of geological subsidence. Kure’s coral is still growing slightly faster than the island is subsiding.
“The Island in Lat. 28 degrees 23’ N and Long. 178 degrees 30’ W … is about three miles in circumference. It is composed of broken coral and shells and is covered near the shore with low bushes. In the season it abounds with sea birds and at times there is a considerable number of hair seals (monk seals.)”
“There is always an abundance of fish and in a great variety. The highest part of the island is not more than ten feet above the level of the sea. The only fresh water is what drains through the sand after the heavy rains. From the specimens of dead shells lying about the beach, there appears to be a great variety of shells.” (Captain Brown, Hawaiian Gazette, September 21, 1886)
Kure Atoll was found in 1823 by Captain Benjamin Morrell, Jr. of the schooner Tartar, who claimed Kure to have an abundance of sea turtles and sea elephants. In 1827, the Russian ship Moller, under Captain Stanikowitch re-discovered the atoll; he named it “Cure Island” to honor a Russian navigator. (cordell-org) It is more generally known as ‘Kure’ today.
Hawai‘i’s whaling era began in 1819 when two New England ships became the first whaling ships to arrive in the Hawaiian Islands. At that time, whale products were in high demand; whale oil was used for heating, lamps and in industrial machinery; whale bone was used in corsets, skirt hoops, umbrellas and buggy whips.
Rich whaling waters were discovered near Japan and soon hundreds of ships headed for the area. The central location of the Hawaiian Islands between America and Japan brought many whaling ships to the Islands. Whalers needed food and the islands supplied this need from its fertile lands.
One such ship, the British whaler Gledstanes, under the command of Captain JR Brown, was crossing these waters and just before midnight on June 9, 1837, the Gledstanes struck the reef on Kure Atoll (only one of the crew was lost, he having jumped overboard in a state of intoxication.)
The Captain and rest of the crew launched three ships’ boats and made landfall on ‘Ocean Island’ (now known as Green Island.) The following day, crew returned to the vessel and, after cutting away the masts, were able to salvage some provisions. The next day the wreck broke apart in the heavy surf. (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, January 29, 1838)
The crew established a makeshift camp on the island and passed their time picking up pieces of the wreckage that had been washed over the reef and into the lagoon with the intention of constructing a vessel from the salvage.
After assembling axes and adzes, necessary for building the craft, from whale spades and augers and chisels from lances, using the salvaged material, the keel of a 38-foot boat was laid two weeks after the loss of Gledstanes.
Within several months, the vessel was completed and determined to be seaworthy; it was named ‘Deliverance.’ Captain Brown and eight others set sail for the Main Hawaiian Islands, while the rest of the crew remained on the island.
While en route, Deliverance encountered the American ship Timoleon, who supplied them with much needed provisions. Deliverance arrived at Honolulu sometime in November, 1837, while the remaining crew on the island was rescued several months later.
Researchers discovered evidence of the Gledstanes wreckage in 2008. The site consists of mainly large heavy artifacts scattered over a 200-foot section of the reef at depths ranging from 6 to 20-feet.
Artifacts include four large anchors, what appear to be two cannons, a try pot (a cauldron for rendering whale oil,) a pile of anchor chain, approximately 50-pig iron ballast bars and copper fasteners of various sizes.
Some of the artifacts are extremely eroded, suggesting that they are affected by scouring due to wave and current activities. The distribution of the site suggests that the vessel hit the fringing reef and broke up, leaving artifacts resting on the reef top and cuts in the reef.
Unlike all other islands and atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, Kure Atoll is the only land area owned by the state of Hawaiʻi – all of the other Northwestern Islands are owned by the US government.
While I was at DLNR, we created Refuge rules that established “a marine refuge in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for the long-term conservation and protection of the unique coral reef ecosystems and the related marine resources and species, to ensure their conservation and natural character for present and future generations.“
This started a process where several others followed with similar protective measures. The BLNR unanimously adopted the State’s Refuge rules, President George W Bush declared it a Marine National Monument and UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site.
Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument is administered jointly by three co-trustees – the Department of Commerce, Department of the Interior and the State of Hawaiʻi – and is one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world, encompassing nearly 140,000-square miles of the Pacific Ocean. (Lots of information and images here are from a summary on the Monument website.)