SCUBA diving has provided me with all sorts of opportunities that I never could have experienced if I were limited to dry land. In addition to the unbelievable chance to work alongside our nation’s aquatic experts through this internship, diving has helped me pay some bills as a dive technician, catch a few meals as a recreational spearfisherman, and study our undersea resources as a fledgling marine researcher. However, none of my previous ventures come remotely close to overlapping with the sensation of diving in Pearl Harbor at the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument. Beneath the silent, murky waters of Pearl Harbor, I experienced the strongest feelings of patriotism, gratitude, and grief that I’ve ever felt below sea level as I solemnly dove alongside the resting place of over a thousand fallen soldiers.
WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument preserves the entire story of the war in the Pacific, with a focus on the events of December 7th, 1941. On that day, 2,390 Americans were killed as bombs rained from the sky in a surprise attack by the Japanese. A centerpiece of the monument is the USS Arizona Memorial, which honors the loss of 1,177 sailors aboard one of the Navy’s largest battleships. Although the Navy chose to salvage most ships that were sunk in Pearl Harbor, USS Arizona and USS Utah remain submerged in the harbor with over a thousand total crewmembers (a number that continues to grow as USS Arizona survivors have their ashes placed inside the wreck by Park Service divers).
After flying in from the Big Island, I met up with Scott Pawlowski, Chief of Cultural and Natural Resources, who briefed me on the upcoming week. In an area with such a strong cultural and historical focus, I was surprised to learn that marine conservation (my main interest) would actually be the focus of my trip. The park was recently approached by The Nature Conservancy about the possibility of measuring Pearl Harbor’s marine life for comparison with Hawaii’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). I was really excited to learn that my job was to spend much of the next week analyzing the best way to go about this process since I’ve been interested in MPAs for years. Later in the week, Scott and I snorkeled at established MPAs around Oahu and attended an informative meeting between the park and The Nature Conservancy. I wrote up a final report on the matter that will hopefully be used to learn more about Hawaii’s marine wildlife!
Along with hundreds of other visitors, my exposure to the National Monument began with a very moving film that explained the buildup to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the chain of events that it set in motion. Once the stage was properly set, the entire theatre boarded a ferry for a quick ride to the water-bound USS Arizona Memorial. The memorial was built in the water directly above the battleship, allowing visitors to view the ship from just a few feet away. Only hushed whispers could be heard as reverent groups of visitors paid their respects to the victims of the attack.
Throughout the week, I had the chance to dive on both USS Arizona and the less-accessible USS Utah. Scott and I dove alongside the hull of Arizona in order to collect GPS coordinates of the memorial’s dock anchors, which are scheduled for maintenance. At USS Utah, Mike Freeman and I outfitted mooring buoys with a new attachment system. The visibility was very limited in the silty harbor, which allowed massive features of the ships to be eerily concealed until I was practically face-to-face with them. Gigantic gun turrets, coral-covered decks, and huge turbines seemed to appear out of nowhere in those green, still waters. I couldn’t stop thinking about how fortunate I was to be pursuing a career in my dream field while men my age lay at rest for our country beside me– it was an incredibly humbling and motivating experience.
After diving with Mike, he let me join him on a pretty unique experience – he is a Navy ship pilot in Pearl Harbor, and he was responsible for safely piloting a 950 foot Navy ship out of the narrow harbor that night! I was able to watch from a tugboat as loads of experience and an absurd amount of finesse allowed two small tugboats to rotate and guide the massive ship out of the narrow harbor. As we towed the ship miles out to sea (a standard procedure for boats of that size), we enjoyed beautiful views of Waikiki and the Diamond Head area at night. I really have to thank Scott for allowing me to be a part of such an interesting project and guiding me around Pearl Harbor (above and below water), and special thanks to Mike for letting me watch his tugboat team in action!