PEARL AND HERMES REEF
The discovery of pearl oysters in the lagoon of Pearl and Hermes Reef, by Captain William Greig Anderson in 1927, did more to put this lonely atoll on the map of the Hawaiian archipelago than any other event during the 105 previous years of its history. "Bill" Anderson was the skipper of the Lanikai, an auxiliary schooner engaged in catching fish for the Hawaiian Tuna Packers. His finding a large bed of a species of pearl oyster which has been named Pinctada galtsoffi opened up a new but short-lived industry for the Territory.
A new concern, the Hawaiian Sea Products Co., Ltd., was quickly organised. They purchased the Lanikai. With permission of the Governor of Hawaii they erected several buildings on one of the small islets in the lagoon,and with the help of Filipino divers they gathered several tons of pearl shells. These were brought to Honolulu, about 1,100 miles away, and sold to manufacturers of pearl buttons in San Francisco and New York.
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On February 3, 1909, as part of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation, Pearl and Hermes Reef had been set aside as a bird sanctuary, and had been placed under the care of the Bureau of the Biological Survey of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1929 the Hawaiian Sea Products Company made application to this Bureau for a lease to Sea Products Company made application to this Bureau for a lease to the atoll. They wanted to establish a fishing station, complete with cold storage plant. They wished to obtain exclusive fishing rights to the lagoon. But a similar application was filed by the Hawaiian Tuna Packers, and there was reason to believe that this might be followed by other requests to work lagoons in the Hawaiian chain.
In order to protect the newly discovered pearl oyster bottoms from possible destruction, the Territorial Government requested the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to outline methods for their conservation and development. Acting on their advice, the Territorial Legislature passed an act making unlawful to "take, collect, molest, or destroy any kind of pearl oyster" in Hawaiian waters, and appropriating $2,500 to provide for a survey of pearl oyster fisheries in the waters under jurisdiction of the Territory.
Such an amount of money was altogether too small to finance such a survey, but the United States Navy Department "loaned" the use of the U.S.S. Whipporwill; the Bureau of Fisheries made their expert, Dr. Paul S. Galtsoff, available; and with the assistance of two Honolulu boys, Northrup S. Castle and John F. Reppun, and two Filipino divers, who previously had been employed in the lagoon, the survey was made during the summer of 1930.
An entertaining account of the survey and its findings can be read in Dr. Galtsoff's report, which was published by Bernice P. Bishop Museum as Bulletin 107, 1933. Only the recommendations which resulted need be recounted here. There were:
"1. To forbid commercial fishing for pearl oysters in Pearl and Hermes Reef for a period of not less than five years. 2. To resurvey the bottom of Pearl and Hermes Reef in 1935. 3. To establish at Pearl and Hermes Reef a pearl oyster reserve from which oysters could be taken only by permission of the Government and exclusively for the purpose of transplantation and cultivation. 4. To continue biological observations on the rate of growth, spawning, and setting of this species. 5. To employ a marine biologist capable of carrying out these studies. 6. To encourage the cultivation of pearl oysters in the Territory of Hawaii by private citizens." Most of these have been forgotten. Thus ended, for the time, the pearl oyster industry begun at Pearl and Hermes Reef. But the oysters are still there, and some day they may be insufficiently abundant to allow some to be harvested.
The rest of the atoll's history is not at all spectacular, except for its curious discovery on the night of April 26, 1822. According to the account published in The Friend for October, 1876, page 86, the Pearl and the Hermes, two English whalers, were cruising these waters in company. On that fateful night both ran aground on the reef within ten miles of each other. The crews of both ships made their way to one of the small Islands in the lagoon and established a camp. After much labour and many hardships, they built out the wreckage a 30-ton vessel which they named the Deliverance, and navigated it safely to Honolulu. The carpenter, James Robinson, later established a shipbuilding business at what is now part of Pier 13. He built Robinson's wharf, and was the first of a distinguished Honolulu family.
Captain John Paty visited the atoll, May 19-20, 1857, mapping it and determining its position. Captain N.C. Brooks, cruising in the barque Gambia. In 1858, stopped and made observations, reporting 12 small islands. In 1867 the atoll was surveyed by the U.S.S. Lackawanna, producing a chart which shows but two islands.
On February 15, 1894, it was leased by the Provisional Government of Hawaii for a period of twenty-five years to the North Pacific Phosphate and Fertiliser Company, which made little use of it. On February 3, 1909, it was made part of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation. In 1912 it was visited by the U.S. Revenue Cutter Thetis. Carl Elschner, a chemical engineer who accompanied this trip, makes various geological observations in a popular account published serially in the Honolulu Advertiser in 1915 and reprinted as a 68 page booklet. He makes the statement that the san islets in the lagoon seen constantly to be shifting in number, structure and location, the highest having an elevation of but twelve feet.
In April, 1923, Pearl and Hermes Reef was visited and explored by a scientific party on the U.S.S. Tanager. Dr. Alexander Westmore, than of the U.S. Biological Survey Bureau studied the birds while several Honolulu scientists collected plants, insects, and marine animals. The reef and lagoon were mapped, showing four islets with vegetation and several sand spits. The map differs in several respects from that reproduced with this chapter, which is adapted from the maps published in Dr. Galtsoff's report. Scientific reports concerning this expedition were published by Bernice P. Bishop Museum.
The reef encloses a lagoon which measures seventeen miles long by ten miles wide, or about 43 miles in circumference. The reef is continuous on the east side but on the south there are some breaks: the main entrance, deep enough to admit small vessels, at least a short way into the lagoon, and a pass for small boats near the Southeast Islet. The northwestern third of the rim consists of a line of coral head and patches of reef, interspersed with deeper water. Within the lagoon are depths of up to 104 feet, with extensive reef formations, some extending for two or three miles in a nearby straight line, others forming miniature atolls.
The islets are devoid of trees, except for some ironwoods (Casuarina) planted in 1928, which may not have survived. In 1923 the three southern islands were found to be very small, hardly more than ten feet high, supporting only bunch grass and low herbs. North Island, although larger, had on it only the same kinds of plants, eleven species in all. There was a slight depression in the eastern part of southeast island in which fresh water collected after rains: Brackish water could be obtained by digging shallow wells.
The sand bars were bare of vegetation, and appeared to be constantly shifting their position under the action of wind and wave.
The rich marine life was studied by the Tanager Expedition in 1923; by Dr. Galtsoff in 1930, and by Dr. Victor Pietschmann, a Bishop Museum fellow from Vienna, in 1928.