The  Kad'yak Shipwreck Saga

 


The Russian-American Company bark Kad'yak (1860)

How the oldest shipwreck ever discovered in Alaska was inexplicably lost again,
then immediately (and miraculously) found by someone else shortly thereafter.


Entire contents are Copyright © 2006-2013 by Steve K. Lloyd—All Rights Reserved
No part of this article may be reproduced or excerpted in any form, printed or electronic.


The Kad'yak Saga Begins


For the benefit of readers who may have landed directly on this page from an external link or web search, and who didn't click their way through the internal links on this website, let me introduce myself. My name is Steve Lloyd. I live in Anchorage, Alaska. My wife and I own Title Wave Books, the largest bookstore in Alaska and one of the best bookstores on the planet.


I am a scuba diver. I find shipwrecks.


Not every shipwreck.


Three of them. [In July 2007, that total stood became four. ~SL]


So far.


I made the Kad'yak shipwreck discovery on July 23, 2003 diving off the ex-fishing vessel Melmar, owned and captained by longtime Kodiak resident Joshua Lewis, a gregarious gentleman with whom I have enjoyed a perplexing and often tumultuous friendship.


Bradley Stevens is a biologist employed by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of NOAA. He is a federal employee based in Kodiak whose paid work has nothing whatsoever to do with shipwrecks. Over the early years of this decade, Stevens became interested in the story of a small wooden sailing ship owned by the Russian-American Company, a bark engaged in the ice-hauling trade between Alaska and San Francisco in the late 1850s.


In 1860 the Kad'yak met its end and sunk in waters off Kodiak Island, Alaska. Stevens dreamed of finding the shipwreck, and performed a lot of back-story reading on the incident. He became skilled at enlisting the assistance of others who completed actual research on the Kad'yak, and drew upon his extensive network of state, federal, and academic contacts to drum up passive support for a quest to find the lost shipwreck.


Sometime in about 2000, Stevens compiled what he'd learned, and what historians with whom he'd connected had told him, into a poorly-written "research proposal" that he circulated to various government and private entities, including NOAA and the National Geographic Society, in an attempt to secure "funding" for a search for the wreck.


Because he was unable to find anyone to foot the bill for his shipwreck hobby (which is all it is, same as my interest in shipwrecks is a hobby), Stevens never looked for the Kad'yak. By this I mean that Stevens, a certified scuba diver, who resides less than 10 miles from the Kad'yak wreck site and had access to a wealth of government- and privately-owned boats, NOAA dive gear, and other assets with which he could have searched for the wreck, never got his butt into the water, swimming around the bottom looking for the wreck with his very own eyes.


Actually, he "looked" for it once with a NOAA-paid submarine that he'd conscripted from its assigned work doing fisheries research, but the sub operator wisely decided that the shallow waters around Spruce Island, dotted with underwater ledges and reefs, made the area a poor choice for wreck-hunting from a multi-million-dollar submarine.


At Last the Real Search Begins


As the careful reader will have already ascertained, I led the team that found the 1929 steamship "Aleutian" on the northwest side of Kodiak Island in August 2002. With Joshua Lewis and several other diver friends, we had returned to the Aleutian in May 2003 for a week of diving and exploring the shipwreck. Around this time, Stevens and Lewis got to talking about the Kad'yak and Lewis indicated that he had a friend in Anchorage (me) who was an experienced shipwreck diver and had access to a marine magnetometer. Since he (Lewis) had a boat that was suitable for searching and diving, why not organize an actual search for the Kad'yak, rather than wasting more time trying to "secure funding" when the search area was RIGHT THERE!


Thanks to Joshua's infectious enthusiasm, and his offer of a free boat, fuel, operator, magnetometer, operator for the mag, dive support, and even complimentary refreshments, Stevens must have realized that it was time to put up or shut up. Calls and emails were exchanged, I purchased an airline ticket from Anchorage to Kodiak, and we scheduled the search to begin on Tuesday, July 22nd, 2003.


Like many Kodiak days, the 22nd dawned gray and rainy, with seas outside the small boat harbor running two to four feet. The members of the "team" met about 7:00 AM for coffee, and the Kodiak locals (Lewis and Stevens) talked about the weather and sea conditions while the two Anchorage guys (me and state archaeologist Dave McMahon) hung back and deferred to the assembled local knowledge. In the end, Stevens admitted that he was prone to seasickness, an unfortunate predisposition for a fisheries biologist. Seas 2 to 4 feet were too rough for him to be out on a boat, let alone trying to dive. He begged off with the understanding that we would check the weather again the next day. Swedish documentary filmmaker Stefan Quinth had other projects to work on, so he opted to bag the rest of the day as well.


Joshua and I didn’t want to spend the day in town, and we had all our dive gear loaded and ready on the Melmar, so we decided to head out. Our friend Reed Oswalt, who grew up in the Native village of Ouzinkie on Spruce Island, came along for company. Archaeologist McMahon, then a newly certified diver, had nothing else to do so we invited him to join us. The four of us motored through the chop and after an hour or so pulled into Ouzinkie Harbor, where we practiced dragging the magnetometer around, calibrating the instrument’s sensitivity by towing it over barrels and other metal debris in the shallow water. Josh, Dave and I enjoyed a leisurely dive along the face of the old Ouzinkie dock, inspecting decades worth of old bottles and other submerged detritus.


By late afternoon the seas in Ouzinkie Narrows outside the harbor had lain down a bit, and we decided to make a run past the Kad’yak search area to check conditions there. We found swells coming in at 2-3 feet and breaking furiously on the beach as we held about a quarter mile offshore. Although it was too rough to run a pattern with the mag, I decided to take a quick jump to check out visibility and other conditions on the bottom. Joshua kept the Melmar’s big diesel engine running and I rolled off the transom, descending into the green murk.


It was a short dive. Vis on the bottom was about 20 feet above the reef structure, dropping to almost nothing over the sand channels that seemed to lace the area. Surge from the topside swell swept me back and forth like a leaf in a gale. I judged the conditions to be far less than optimal, but absolutely divable for someone with my experience diving in marginal Alaska conditions. I did a free ascent, climbed aboard the Melmar, and we motored back to Kodiak city for the night.

Discovery Day


The next morning, Wednesday, July 23rd, the group assembled once again for coffee across from the small boat harbor. Stevens was dismayed to learn that not only had we gone out on the boat without him the previous day, but that we had actually dived. And not only had we dived, but I had the temerity to make a jump at the site of HIS shipwreck! The elfish biologist was somewhat mollified to hear that conditions had been poor, and that I’d made the jump as a reconnaissance dive for the true search. The day was still gray and rainy, but the swell had lain down a bit and we all boarded the Melmar for the hour-long run back to Spruce Island.


We reached the waters off Icon Bay and Stevens produced a map he had located that purported to show the Kad’yak’s resting place. At his direction, Lewis piloted the boat to the area offshore where Stevens believed the wreck to be. I assembled the proton magnetometer, a torpedo-shaped “fish” that is connected to an electronic control box on deck, and is towed slowly through the water. The mag works as kind of an underwater metal detector, sensing changes in the earth’s natural magnetic signature (think compass needle) that result from the presence of underwater deposits of ferrous metal, such as steel and iron.


With Lewis steering the boat, I spent hours on the back deck monitoring the magnetometer, which I had borrowed from a diving friend in California. Without exception, none of the other people aboard had experience with this device. As the day was chilly with a piercing drizzle, Stevens, McMahon and the others retired to the Melmar's warm cabin after about 30 minutes on deck, visiting with one another over steaming mugs of cocoa while I crouched on the open deck, trying to keep my glasses from fogging in the rain while shielding the borrowed electronics with my body.


The Melmar’s zigzag search pattern expanded outward. After an hour or more of searching we had traveled well away from Stevens’ original target area. Once we were several hundred meters to the southwest, the instrument began signaling the presence of anomalies underwater—possibly ferrous metal. Joshua and I worked together to isolate the hits, me watching the instrument and calling out course changes, while he steered a straight course from GPS and landmarks on the island some quarter-mile distant. Stevens and the other remained inside, shielded from the weather.


Based on a puzzling pattern of magnetometer hits, I buoyed two locations for investigation by divers. We had been searching for several hours. The seas had lain down to almost flat, with slight ground swells. It was time to get wet.


Stevens looked at the two buoys I had placed to mark the mag targets, which were 200 meters or more from the spot his research had convinced him the Kad'yak should be, and decided the hits were bogus. He and McMahon took the first dive. Although I had directed Lewis to anchor midway between the buoys, the federal biologist and the state archaeologist performed a long swim northeast, the direction Stevens believed the wreck to lie. Not surprisingly, they failed to find anything. Both men ran low on air and they surfaced together, far away from the boat.


Because there were other divers in the water, Lewis and I determined that since they were not in distress, Stevens and McMahon could surface-swim back to the boat.


We hadn't sent them that way. Let them swim.


I assisted the first team out of the water, and helped them undress and stow their kit. Next up were Swedish documentary filmmaker Stefan Quinth and boat owner-captain Joshua Lewis, who entered the water together and made a dive in the vicinity of the buoyed mag targets. If I recall correctly, one of them was improperly weighted and their short dive accomplished nothing.


I purposely waited until every diver on two boats had completed as many dives as he wanted to do (one or two, variously). Since I had a set of twin 104s with lots of gas, and I have a great deal of experience performing planned decompression dives, and I am completely comfortable diving alone, I took the clean-up dive.


On that dive, alone on the bottom, I found the remains of the Kad'yak shipwreck.

The Truth is Out There


Every other diver who entered the choppy waters off Spruce Island that day, including NOAA biologist Bradley Stevens and Alaska state archaeologist Dave McMahan, Joshua Lewis and documentary filmmaker Stefan Quinth, plus a local dive shop owner and his partner, had already completed their dives. No one had found the slightest hint of a man-made object of any kind on the ocean floor.


Drawing upon my experience locating and diving shipwrecks, I executed a 90-minute solo dive and located the sand channel that ultimately would yield the main debris area of the shipwreck. In extremely limited visibility, fighting strong surge, the water column filled with suspended particulate, I located iron and copper wreckage imbedded in the sand. Diving open circuit, on air, I was deep into a decompression obligation by the time I found the Kad'yak wreckage. With no time left to explore, I sent up a lift-bag attached to a line, which I anchored to a piece of wreckage so that we could get a topside GPS fix later from the boat.


The following day, July 24th, the other divers and I all returned to the wreck site. I took the first dive and found visibility somewhat improved. I explored the site and oriented myself on the two anchors, the large round object believed at the time to be a hawsepipe, and other items. I ran a line between major wreckage components so that Stevens, McMahon and the others would be able to orient themselves. It was one of the other divers (not Stevens) who discovered the first of the Kad'yak cannons on a subsequent dive that afternoon.


Beginning immediately after the July 24th dives, it became clear that Bradley Stevens was not interested in sharing credit for the discovery with anyone, even the diver (me) who had found the shipwreck that he had dreamed of finding for years.


That evening, over dinner at a local restaurant (Dutch treat), Stevens insisted that everyone on the "team" stay quiet about the discovery while he plotted the best way to spin the announcement to his advantage. He made it clear that the intention was to give full and complete credit for the discovery to the (primarily government-employed) scientists and historians who had assisted in background research relating to the history and sinking of the Kad'yak, without mentioning the contributions of Joshua and myself.


Shocked at the self-important posturing of the biologist, we resolved to make the announcement ourselves. We had no idea what a firestorm was about to be unleashed.

Spike Outlaw


There was a misunderstanding concerning the curation and custody of three bronze drift pins that I removed from the sand during my last dive on July 24th, an activity that was approved by state archaeologist McMahon. I felt that as the discoverer of the wreck, and the designated collector of “identifiable artifacts” that were needed for publicity, I should have the right to keep and conserve one of the pins after turning over the other two to the joint custody of Stevens and McMahon.


Custody of the pin fell to attorney Peter Hess, the Delaware admiralty attorney who was co-counsel for Lewis and me in our battle over rights to the 1929 Aleutian wreck. I was finally forced to turn the pin over to the office of Alaska’s Assistant Attorney General under threat of prosecution.


During the early weeks of August, Stevens appears to have been in the grip of a Kad’yak manic episode. In addition to chattering incessantly about how he found the wreck, he actively sought to discredit anything that I had to say about the find. By mid-August Stevens had appointed himself Keeper of the Wreck and sent out a mass email announcing “I would like to be considered as the official source for information to the media about the discovery of the Kad'yak.”

War of Words


Not yet as hardened as later events would make me, I crafted a very fair and accurate press release announcing the discovery, giving Stevens full credit for the research that provided historical context to the shipwreck and making it clear that while he was The Big Man of the Kad'yak discovery, it was my skill and experience in the water that had presented him with (literally) a rope tied to the shipwreck so he could follow it to the bottom.


Because I felt it imperative to recognize the contributions of the entire team in making the discovery, I distributed the press release to media in Anchorage and other Alaska cities on July 24th. In the first paragraph, I gave Stevens full and complete credit for putting the project together and performing the initial research. I also acknowledged Dave McMahon, the state archaeologist, and Josh Lewis, who donated the use of his boat and paid for the expedition’s fuel. In fact, while Stevens’ name is prominently mentioned a total of five times, mine appears twice (and not at all until the 10th paragraph).


Early in the morning of July 25th I received a voice mail message from Stevens at my Anchorage office, pleading with me not to send out the press release. Apparently, a member of the press had called him for comment and Stevens thought that somehow he could still control the timing of the announcement.


When it became clear that the cat was out of the bag, Stevens went into full spin control and called a press conference of his own in Kodiak. That afternoon, the good doctor dismissed my generous description of the team’s accomplishment and said (quote) “Let’s just say someone leaked the information to the Anchorage press before I was ready to do it. It probably is good for someone’s business.” Coming from a man who clearly savored the prospect of the publicity and attention the find would generate, and who in the years since has not missed an opportunity to inflate his significance while downplaying the contributions of anyone not in his small, self-described circle of colleagues, his remarks amounted to total bullshit.


News of the discovery broke in print on Monday, July 28th when the Anchorage Daily News ran a feature story announcing the find.

Pearl Harbor Day


On December 6th, Josh and I returned to the Kad'yak site with a reporter from the Kodiak newspaper, along with lawyer Peter Hess from Delaware. We made two exploratory dives. Although none of us disturbed the site in any way, it became clear as we explored the prominent artifacts—cannons, anchors, etc.—that Stevens and other local divers had been exploring the site. I found hundreds of feet of nylon cave line that had been tied to various artifacts, which the surge and current had pulled loose and twisted with driftwood and seaweed to form a tangled mess we deemed The Spiderweb.


The next evening, December 7th, Peter gave a community talk and slideshow on lost shipwrecks. He discussed the Monitor, the Atocha, the Doria, and other wrecks worldwide, touching only briefly on the recent Kodiak discoveries of the Aleutian and the Kad'yak. Peter made some upbeat comments on the tourism potential of having divers visit Kodiak to dive these wrecks and others still to be discovered. I ran the slide projector, but did not speak. Stevens was not in attendance, as he was then in Washington DC on a temporary assignment for NOAA. Everything he "knows" about that evening—and indeed his knowledge of our Kad'yak dives of the previous day—came from spies in the audience and the text of a news article published the following afternoon.


The following day, the Kodiak Daily Mirror ran a story written by Drew Herman, the reporter who had been on the dive boat with us. Headlined "Maritime lawyer: Kodiak could be diving destination," the piece opened with the line "Disasters from Kodiak's past could turn into blessings for its future" and went on to say "Hess foresees a time when diving could join fishing and hunting as a local economic asset." Keep in mind that Kodiak is a community hard-hit by the economic decline of commercial fishing and crabbing in recent years.


Herman's story was picked up by the Associated Press, appearing in the statewide Anchorage Daily News and other papers on December 9th.


Stevens went ballistic. Not only had Hess announced publicly for the first time that Stevens was not solely responsible for the discovery of the Kad'yak, but the respected maritime lawyer mentioned our research indicated that the 1860 Russian-American Company shipwreck may not meet the test of abandonment necessary for classification as a state-owned shipwreck under the Abandoned Shipwreck Act, and as such might be fair game for the finder to arrest the scattered remains under the provisions of federal salvage law.


From a legal perspective, these statements were correct. However, Peter was not then cognizant of the way his comments would be twisted around to show how this hot-shot, big-city lawyer had come to Kodiak, dived and pillaged the priceless historical treasure of the Kad'yak, and was now going to exploit the island's heritage for his own personal gain.


Armed with righteous indignation and a sharp pencil, Stevens dashed off a scathing op-ed piece to the Kodiak paper, which made a poor editorial decision by publishing it without checking the "facts" or editing the accusatory and inflammatory tone. Even considering the personal stake Stevens had in milking his Fifteen Minutes for all it was worth, his piece was way over the top. There was no way that I could leave his as the last word on the subject.

Aftermath


Naturally, as with any good story, this one has a sequel. There are allegations of stolen artifacts, aborted television documentaries, taxpayer-funded diving junkets and all sorts of small-town politics.

I encourage anyone with an interest in the truth about the Kad’yak discovery to read these points and counterpoints, and come to your own conclusion.