Humans are captivated by shipwrecks. The mystery, the intrigue, and the portal to the past that they provide. From September 8-12, 2023, the Ocean Exploration Trust aboard Exploration Vessel (E/V) Nautilus conducted archaeological assessments of three iconic World War II aircraft carriers that were sunk during the Battle of Midway.
The assessments included a visual survey of Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) ship Akagi, the first detailed views of United States ship (USS) Yorktown since it was first located 25 years ago, and a comprehensive survey of IJN ship Kaga. The shipwrecks were studied where they reside at the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM), the largest protected area in the U.S.
“This expedition is not only rewriting history and our understanding of these special places, but also pushing the limits of what we thought was possible in terms of interdisciplinary collaboration,” says Daniel Wagner, Ph.D., Chief Scientist for Ocean Exploration Trust. “During over 43 hours at depth, we methodically circumnavigated these historic wrecks, bringing to light many features in great detail, including their armament, battle, and sinking-related damage. Many anti-aircraft guns were still pointing up, providing clues about the final moments on these iconic ships.”
The mission of the surveys was to examine the conditions of the shipwrecks, document them, and honor those who lost their lives in the battle. Over the course of the mission, video surveys were streamed live via NautilusLive.org, allowing the public to follow along and stay up to date on the findings.
“To explore Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and these iconic naval ships is a solemn privilege on many levels,” says Rick Spinrad, Ph.D., NOAA Administrator. “NOAA is grateful to the Monument Trustees, our partners, and the Nautilus expedition team who have made it possible to venture to these extreme depths and share these discoveries with the world.”
“On this occasion, we meet on those same Pacific waters in which Japan and the U.S. once met in battle, but this time as allies and fellow researchers,” says Kosei Nomura, Minister, Head of Economic Section, Embassy of Japan. “We are reminded that today’s peace and tomorrow’s discoveries are built on the sacrifices of war, and so in my view, it is meaningful that Japan and the U.S. are now deepening their cooperation at Midway, utilizing such cutting-edge technology.”
For many of the wrecks, it was the first time the public was able to see them in live time and receive data about them. The historic dives took place during E/V Nautilus Ala ʻAumoana Kai Uli expedition, a 27-day NOAA-funded mission to explore uncharted deep-water habitats to collect baseline data needed to support management in the most remote northwestern section of PMNM.
“The vast majority of our ocean lies in very deep waters that we know virtually nothing about,” says Wagner.“These deep-sea explorations highlight how many extraordinary things are still hidden and waiting to be found in the great depths of our ocean.”