Diving the Site of JFK’s WWII Shipwreck

Three thousand, six hundred meters below the surface of the Solomon Sea lies the wreckage of PT-109, a patrol torpedo boat last commanded by John F. Kennedy during World War II.

This PT boat was sunk by a Japanese destroyer on a moonless night in August 1943, only to be discovered by a National Geographic expedition led by explorer Robert Ballard in 2002. Many of our field sites in the Solomon Islands—such as Gizo, our current location—are surrounded by relics such as this from countless battles won and lost on these waters.

The location of Kennedy Island in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. (Images from Google Maps 2015. Content may not reflect National Geographic’s current map policy.)

This week, our pursuit of bumphead parrotfish led us high above this shipwreck and onto the small tropical island where Kennedy and his crew were stranded for six days, surviving solely on coconuts. It was striking to think of the future U.S. president, roughly at our age, brought for a very different reason to this same remote Pacific island. We asked ourselves how we would fare in his shoes.

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Lt. (jg) John F. Kennedy aboard the PT-109 in the South Pacific, 1943. (Photograph in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston)

On the reefs surrounding this historically-rich island (aptly dubbed Kennedy Island by locals) we conducted a morning and an afternoon dive survey, like we do at all our study sites.

This involves the two of us gearing up on the boat and tipping back into the ocean to dive the shallow reefs where bumpheads love to roam and forage. On this particular day, we were happy to find that the surrounding reefs were largely composed of Pocilloporid corals—the group of hard, branching corals that make up the majority of the typical bumphead diet.

Pocilloporid corals are hard, branching corals that make up the majority of a typical bumphead parrotfish diet. (Photographs by Andrea Reid and Mikayla Wujec)

During our survey dives at roughly 10-meters depth the two of us trade off our various sampling techniques.

Behind the domed lens of her underwater camera, Mikayla is responsible for taking hundreds of photographs of the corals within our sites. These photos will later be used to generate highly accurate 3-D models of individual coral colonies, but more on this in our next post!

Andrea measures specific characteristics of the coral substrate and the aqautic environment, and all the while we both have our eyes peeled for bumpheads.

Despite the abundance of their favourite food at Kennedy Island, only a single bumphead was spotted. We are beginning to think that our chances of seeing any more bumpheads on these overfished reefs surrounding Gizo are slim to none and are excited to survey new waters.

Read All Posts by Mikayla Wujec and Andrea Reid