By Brett Seymour, Deputy Chief - National Park Service Submerged Resources Center
May 10, 2017
My first dive here at Midway Atoll was on the USS Macaw, a World War II (WWII) submarine rescue ship that sank in February 1944. As I rolled off the small SAFE boat and prepared to descend, a shark—most likely a Galapagos—swam by unfazed by our presence. I couldn’t help but hope it was a foreshadowing of the incredible underwater world of the remote Pacific.
The shipwreck was largely decimated, beaten down and strewn over the reef by more than a half-century of violent storm surge. My role on this dive, and this expedition, is to both document the science but also help tell the story of Midway, then and now, through the lens. For the past two decades as an underwater photographer with the National Park Service (NPS) Submerged Resources Center (SRC), I have been fortunate to participate in projects such as this during my career.
Midway Atoll has always held a sense of wonder due to my fascination with WWII, and the remnants of war are still found underwater today. Early in my NPS career, I began diving and photographing the USS Arizona battleship in Pearl Harbor, which ignited a fascination with the stories and artifacts of WWII.
There is no greater narrative than the Battle of Midway and the offensive push of the United States military to turn the tide of the war. When I was invited to participate on this expedition, I imagined photographing recently discovered sunken WWII airplanes in the shallow waters around the atoll. But after nearly a week on this speck, located “midway” between Tokyo (2,553 miles) and San Francisco (3,212 miles), I have discovered there are more stories to tell, and to photograph.
Even though WWII planes are the focus of the expedition, the remote sensing survey doesn’t discriminate anything made of metal resting within the magnetometer lanes. Often times these “anomalies,” as we call them, can be a less spectacular discovery, such as I-beams, pipes, and metal debris discarded off ships within the harbor. Each one is marked with pinpoint accuracy via GPS and we go to the coordinates and document what is there.
In five days, our dive team has investigated over 65 anomalies underwater. That’s 10-15 dives a day, 10-15 times to gear up in small rocking boat, splash, and then haul yourself up over the gunwale after the dive. Also, despite what your thoughts of the azure water of Midway deep within the Pacific might be, it’s cold. Not tropical, but an energy draining 68-70°F water with cloudy, windy temperatures only in the mid 60s to mid 70s. When you spend the day in heavy seas in a rocking boat doing 10-15 dives a day, it is not a casual recreational diving vibe—it’s demanding work.
Not everything we find during our dives is discarded cultural materials from the past. In addition to diving the USS Macaw a few days ago, we also spent some time on the previously discovered remains of a Brewster F2A-3 Buffalo that was an American fighter plane from early in WWII. Although not much is left resting on the shallow reef just inside the lagoon, the radial engine, prop, landing struts, and .50 caliber machine gun can still be clearly seen.
Also, just yesterday, we had a remarkable find and a stunning visual—possibly predating WWII by 100 years: wedged deep within a coral grove outside the atoll was a massive anchor, potentially dating back to the whaling industry that peaked from 1846-1852. Thick chain rested embedded within the reef running 50-75 feet from the anchor to its eventual end point. Was this some last ditch effort by a ship in distress to avoid certain destruction on the shallow fringing reef of Midway? Did the ship and her crew make it? One can only speculate the narrative, and as for the archeological value of such a find, I will leave that to the professionals. My job is to merely capture the images—images that help the scientists understand the past, WWII or otherwise.