Image: Anchor found
Han Van Tilburg  /  NOAA via AP
Divers check out an anchor found at whaling wreck sites at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in this photo, provided by the National Marine Sanctuary Program.
updated 6/8/2005 5:17:53 PM ET 2005-06-08T21:17:53

Marine scientists investigating the discovery of two sunken ships in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have found two new shipwrecks and a trail of coal that may lead to another wreck.

Researchers on Tuesday said that they spotted a barge at French Frigate Shoals and the remains of a modern vessel lost at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in 1989. The find follows last year's discovery of what may be two British whaling ships that sank in 1822.

Scientists also located a trail of coal on the ocean floor while investigating a 19th-century wooden ship previously found at Kure Atoll. The underwater path could lead researchers to the Australian ship Dunnottar Castle, which ran aground in 1886.

"It's really a tragic event we are talking about, but we get very excited about that stuff. It's rare to find sites like these," said Hans Van Tilburg, maritime heritage coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Van Tilburg was aboard the vessel Hi'ialakai with a team of scientists and researchers who returned to Oahu Tuesday after a 25-day expedition to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, an archipelago of islands and atolls that stretch 1,200 miles (1,920 kilometers) from the main Hawaiian islands.

Researchers stumbled onto the latest historic findings while investigating anchors, cauldrons and cannonballs found last year by divers near a remote atoll where two British whaling ships disappeared nearly two centuries ago.

Pearl and Hermes Atoll was named for the ships, which wrecked as they traveled together in 1822. Crew members from the British vessels swam ashore and were later rescued.

"These are very rare sites and that's why we feel protective and that's why we get to emphasize preservation," Van Tilburg noted.

Global positioning systems and high-tech mapping and sensor devices helped track the wrecks. Some of the remains, including glass and wood, were brought back for analysis, and a complete report should be available in a few months.

Randall Kosaki, research coordinator for the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem, said mapping marine life there could help scientists understand how much the urbanized Hawaiian islands affect the area's ecosystem. He also hopes data collected will prompt lawmakers to designate the area as the nation's 14th National Marine Sanctuary by next year.

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