Lost 19th Century Whaling Fleet Found Off Alaska’s Arctic Coast – NOAA

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January 12, 2016

An anchor and other objects observed during the Lost Whaling Fleet expedition. Photo credit: NOAA

Archaeologists have discovered the battered hulls of two 1800s whaling ships nearly 144 years after their sinking off the Arctic coast of Alaska along with a fleet 31 others, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has announced.

The shipwrecks and parts of other ships that were located are most likely the the remains of 33 ships that became trapped by pack ice close to Alaska’s shores in September 1871, NOAA says. The ships were destroyed by the ice in a matter of weeks, leaving the more than 1,200 whalers stranded until they were eventually rescued by other whaling ships in the area.

No one died in the incident, but it is cited as one of the major causes of the demise of commercial whaling in the United States, according to NOAA.

NOAA says the shipwrecks were first discovered back in September when a team of archaeologists from the Maritime Heritage Program in NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries searched a 30-mile stretch of coastline nearshore in the Chukchi Sea, near Wainwright, Alaska.

Previous searches for the ships had already found traces of gear salvaged from the wrecks by the locals, as well as scattered timbers stranded high on the isolated beaches stretching from Wainwright to Point Franklin.

Abandonment of the whalers in the Arctic Ocean, September 1871, including the George, Gayhead, and Concordia. Scanned from the original Harper’s Weekly 1871. (Credit: courtesy of Robert Schwemmer Maritime Library)
Abandonment of the whalers in the Arctic Ocean, September 1871, including the George, Gayhead, and Concordia. Scanned from the original Harper’s Weekly 1871. (Credit: courtesy of Robert Schwemmer Maritime Library)

Using sonar and sensing technology, NOAA says its team was able to plot the “magnetic signature” of the two wrecks, including the outline of their flattened hulls. The site also revealed anchors, fasteners, ballast and brick-lined pots used to render whale blubber into oil.

“Earlier research by a number of scholars suggested that some of the ships that were crushed and sunk might still be on the seabed,” said Brad Barr, NOAA archaeologist and project co-director. “But until now, no one had found definitive proof of any of the lost fleet beneath the water. This exploration provides an opportunity to write the last chapter of this important story of American maritime heritage and also bear witness to some of the impacts of a warming climate on the region’s environmental and cultural landscape, including diminishing sea ice and melting permafrost.”

James Delgado, maritime heritage director for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, said he believes the wrecks were pressed against a submerged sand bar that rests about 100 yards from shore. Working from first-hand accounts of the loss of the fleet, he said the ice opened the hulls to the sea and tore away the upper portions of the ships, scattering their timbers on the beach, while the lower hulls, weighted down with ballast, and in some cases still anchored, stayed in place against the sand bar, according to NOAA.

“Usually, the Arctic does not destroy ships if there is a natural obstacle like a sand bar, large rocks or a sheltered cove to partially divert the force of tons of ice,” Delgado said.

More from NOAA:

On Sept. 12, 1871, the captains of the 33 whaling ships caught in the ice convened aboard theChampion to consider their options for saving the 1,219 officers, crew, and in some cases, families, from their fate. Although, their situation was dire, there was some small glimmer of hope for rescue by seven nearby ships.

However, to save such a large party, the rescuing whale ships had to jettison their precious cargoes of whale oil, bone and their expensive whaling gear to make room for the survivors. The rescue ships were able to sail safely out of the Arctic and back to Honolulu, where hundreds of native Hawaiian whalers aboard the stranded vessels lived, while others sailed on to San Francisco, New Bedford and other cities.

 

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