After a restless red eye from American Samoa, I found myself on another tropical island in the Pacific. Honolulu, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, is a bustling city sprawling from the foothills of the Ko’olau Mountains to the blue waters of the south coast. Even at 5:30am traffic is backed up and people are already going about their day. Bleary-eyed and overwhelmed I felt like a fish out of water in this mad city. However, I made my way to the park office later that morning and met the staff of the Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Pearl Harbor. I received a greeting equally as warm as the one I got in Samoa and instantly felt right at home.
After getting established at the visitor center I was given a “passport” to some of the attractions at the park. I met up with Naomi Blinick, the 2011 OWUSS/NPS intern, who is currently working for VALR. We toured a retired WWII submarine, the USS Bowfin, and explored the features and exhibits of this historic park. While every child in America knows the story of what happened in Pearl Harbor the morning of December 7, 1941 few people know the stories of the men and women who were there that day, and the subsequent months as the US’s involvement in the Pacific began.
All of these thoughts were bouncing around in my brain as I took the ferry over to the USS Arizona’s memorial. Moored over the sunken battleship the memorial serves as a testament to those who were lost, and those who survived the brutal and sudden attack almost 75 years ago. My visit to the memorial was especially meaningful as I was planning to dive the Arizona the next morning. But, much like in American Samoa, I would soon learn how sudden events could rearrange even the best-laid plans.
The next morning (Thursday May 28) I met with Scott Pawloski, VALR’s Park Diving Officer, and Naomi, at around 0800 to load up the park’s Boston Whaler. Just as we were unloading the gear from the Park’s van the first ferry shuttling visitors to the memorial came charging back to the visitor center. The captain of the ferry told us that something had happened to the landing on the memorial, and that he couldn’t dock the ferry. We dropped what we were doing and sped out across the harbor towards the monument to see what had happened.
Just moments before we got to the visitor center that morning the floating hospital ship, USN Mercy, was being escorted from its dock adjacent to the monument and the visitor center. Though the final report is unclear, apparently either the Mercy or one of the tugboat-escorts hit the monument’s dock. As we came up to the monument things looked far from good. We were greeted by twisted steel, broken concrete and the landing platform approximately 30ft away from where it should have been. All thoughts of diving were out of the question; at this point damage control was everyone’s main priority.
As we headed back to the visitor center I could see the concern on Scott’s face. He has a strong connection to the monument and knows the Arizona like the back of his hand. Back at the visitor center you could cut the tension with a knife. Although Hawaii exists in a perpetual stare of “island time”, the Park Office, and Navy Command, sprang into action. I did my best to stay out of the way as phones rang and people moved about. The circumstance weren’t exactly good, but I was very impressed by the quick and thorough action and communication the Park Service and the Navy shared over the next few days.
However, the main reason that the Mercy had to move that morning was because the USS Carl Vinson was making its way to Pearl Harbor. Scott had somehow arranged for me to ride along in one of the 4 Tiger tugboats that would be escorted the absolutely massive aircraft carrier to its dock. Although still concerned about the morning’s events, I was thrilled to see first hand how four 100’ tugboats (miniature by comparison) could help escort such an enormous vessel. Of course, they did so with ease and efficiency.
That afternoon, back at the visitor center the mood at the office was somber, but things were already happening. I made plans with Naomi to do a resource orientation dive on the USS Utah for the next morning. The Utah was one of three ships that the military was unable to raise after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Sitting on her side, leaning at about 45degrees, only part of her hull breaches the water. She is located on the other side of Ford Island, away from the visitor center and from the typical commotion found at the National Monument.
Naomi and I toured the wreck, and it was unlike any dive I’ve ever been on. Though the visibility is typical better than the Arizona it was still only about 15’ at best. After sitting on the bottom of the harbor for almost 75 years the battleship is fouled with an impressive array of marine fauna. Most of the ship’s features are unrecognizable, only certain structures like the gun turrets give away the true nature of the substrate. Though I have been on dives with a similar feel, every so often some aspect of the ship would reveal itself, and would I get a very eerie feeling.
After the dive I returned to the visitor center, just in time for Scott to motion me over to the Park’s Whaler. He told me to jump in and we sped over to the memorial. The Navy never sleeps; already there was a topside engineering crew and a subsurface salvage crew working on the memorial. It was the latter that Scott wanted me to meet. The Mobile Diving and Salvage Unit 1, or MDSU 1, is one of the best diving operations in the business. It was a rare treat to see these guys working in the silty, oily water surrounding the memorial.
As part of a consolation for missing the Arizona, Scott offered to take me on a fun dive to one of his favorite beaches that Friday. However, as Friday chugged along we had to push the dive back further and further. Scott was moving from meeting to meeting trying his best to get the maintenance work on the memorial moving as quickly and efficiently as possible. By some stroke of good fortune I found myself in the Ranger Office listening in on a meeting with the Park’s superintendent, the head ranger, the head of interpretation, Scot, and a consultant. The good news was that the Navy crews were doing their best, but time was not on their side. The superintendent looked at Scott and told him that he needed to do a survey of the Arizona in the next few days to make sure the artifacts and ship were intact, if Scott deemed the conditions safe enough. I could see the gears turning in Scott’s head, and without missing a beat he passed me a sticky note across the table. The note said, “We’re diving the Arizona” and, this being my last day at the park, I knew he meant now.
With a speed the dead opposite of “island time” we rallied our gear, briefed the dive, and within 45 minutes of leaving the Ranger Office we were speeding to the memorial, having just gotten last minute clearance from the Navy’s harbor patrol. We had just one hour to survey the wreck and get out of there. Scott tasked me to film the dive, and anything he indicated, so he could write a report of what we found. The dive lasted less than 30 minutes, but still it was an amazing experience. Visibility was less than half of what it was on the Utah, which intensified the spookiness of the dive. The Arizona makes herself known to the lucky few divers who get a chance to circumnavigate the wreck. As we swam in a counterclockwise sweep we got momentarily lost in a slit out, examined the ship’s artifacts, and saw a school of juvenile ulua, or Bluefin trevally Thankfully there was a light wind, which kept the oil (still leaking out of the ship at about 1L/day) away from us.
Just as quickly as everything ramped up were already on our way back to the visitor center. Although I didn’t have much time in Hawaii, the pace was certainly faster than in Samoa. After saying goodbye to Scott and VALR, I was able to spend my last day in Hawaii on Oahu’s North Shore. Though only active in the winter, the waves of the North Shore are a mecca for every surfer; it was amazing to see the places imprinted in my brain from countless movies and magazines in real life. “Island time” takes over on the North Shore, and it seems I was able to catch my breath after such an exciting week. But now I am trading out tropical Pacific islands for the cold and murky waters of Arizona’s Glen Canyon National Park, after one more solid day of travel of course.
I’d like to say thanks to Naomi Blinick for helping me out and showing me the Utah, and Scott Pawlowski for all of his help and patience. And also a big thanks to my friend Astrid Letiener, who was able to give me a couch to sleep on for the week after my housing fell through at the last minute!
Mahalo, and thanks for reading!