In September 1871, shifting pack ice trapped 33 of a fleet of 40 commercial whaling ships hunting for bowhead whales off the Arctic coast of Alaska. While in previous years shifting winds had freed similarly stranded ships, nature did not intervene in this case. Within weeks, ice had destroyed the trapped vessels, forcing the evacuation of more than 1,200 whalers and family members. No one died, but the disaster struck a heavy financial blow to the already-struggling U.S. whaling industry. Now, thanks to technological advances and shrinking ice due to climate change, archaeologists have found the wreckage of what appear to be two of the lost ships at the bottom of the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Wainwright, Alaska.
The whaling ships’ captains waited for a change in the winds, but it never came. Instead, some 33 vessels remained trapped in the conjoined mass of floating ice shards known as pack ice that had formed in the Arctic waters off the Alaskan coast. In similar incidents in previous years, shifting winds had freed ice-packed ships and sent them floating seaward, but no such relief arrived for these ships in September of 1871. Instead, the ice began to destroy the ships, leaving some 1,219 whalers and family members stranded.
All of them ultimately survived, evacuating their vessels and rowing some 90 miles to reach the standby whaling ships that would save them. But those ships were forced to ditch their precious cargo and much of their equipment to take on the stranded crews and families, a sacrifice that would have severe economic consequences for the U.S. whaling industry. Brad Barr, an archaeologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), estimated the losses caused by the so-called Great Whaling Disaster of 1871 reached the equivalent of a little more than $33 million in 2015 dollars. As Barr told LiveScience: “The event has been attributed as possibly a major contributory factor in the demise of whaling in the U.S.”
In the more than 144 years since the disaster, debris linked to the lost fleet has washed ashore sporadically. But no artifacts tied to the shipwrecks had been found beneath the water—until now. Beginning in late August 2015, Barr and a team of researchers from the Maritime Heritage Program of the NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries surveyed the floor of the Chukchi Sea off the coast of the Inupiat village of Wainwright, in northwestern Alaska. Using state-of-the-art sonar and underwater sensing technologies, the archaeologists found the magnetic signatures of two shipwrecks they believe are part of the lost 1871 fleet, including the outlines of their flattened hulls.
Underwater video revealed an even more fascinating scene, including anchors, fasteners, pins and ballast. The archaeologists even discovered some of the special brick-lined pots that the whalers used to heat whale blubber and turn it into whale oil, used to fire up oil lamps and make soap, margarine and other all-important products before the advent of petroleum. While the scientists can’t say definitively that the two wrecked ships were among the 33 lost in 1871, there are a lot of signs that point to that conclusion: More than half of all the ships known to have wrecked in the area went down in the 1871 event, and both wrecks and beams and hull timbers similar to those used in whaling ships from the late 19th century.
In addition to advancements in technology, the team was aided in their efforts by the changing climate, which by causing sea-ice levels to shrink is providing increasing opportunities to uncover lost shipwrecks even off Alaska’s northern coast. During the expedition to the Chukchi Sea, the absence of ice was notable, and the archaeologists reportedly found artifacts from the wrecked ships “just sitting there” for them to find, in Barr’s words. The team discovered remnants of a sandbar, which them believe protected the artifacts from sea ice.
Though the NOAA says they are not worried that the historic site will be disturbed—historic preservation laws apply, plus there is no gold bullion, jewels or other precious cargo that might draw fortune hunters—they are not publicizing the site’s exact location. Instead, they will provide all information to the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology, the agency in charge of protecting sites and relics in state territory.