Lost whaling fleet found at last

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With the Arctic ice pack shrinking, NOAA archaeologists were able to explore the waters off Alaska’s North Slope and locate two of 33 whaling ships crushed and lost in the ice nearly 145 years ago.

No lives were lost when the 33 whalers, trapped in Arctic ice, were abandoned in 1871.

Starting last August, archaeologists aboard Ukpik, a 50-foot Prudhoe Bay-based research vessel, scoured a 30-mile stretch of near-shore waters in the Chukchi Sea off Wainwright, Alaska. In September, they found the two wooden hulls in 15 feet of water. Warmer weather and a later onset of pack ice near the shore of the North Slope “extended the window when we could safely navigate those waters,” says Brad Barr, a NOAA archaeologist and project co-director.

The team surveyed the bottom out to about three miles, but conditions often were so bad — 30-knot winds and 9-foot waves — that they forced Ukpik (“snowy owl” in the Inupiat language) to seek the shelter of bays lying behind low barrier beaches. Yet the oceanographic vessel was spared the onslaught of ice that trapped the whaling fleet close to the Alaskan Arctic shore in September 1871.

The pack ice had pushed in close to shore that year, and the whaling captains were counting on the customary wind shift from the east to drive it back out to sea, but it didn’t happen, according to Barr. Frozen in place, the ships were at the mercy of the ice pack’s unrelenting advance as it pressed the vessels against a submerged sandbar 100 yards from shore. The ice split the hulls, tore away their topsides and cabins, and scattered their timbers on the beach, firsthand accounts reported. Submerged and filled with ballast, the lower parts of the hulls remained on the sandbar.

In mortal danger, 1,219 officers, crew, and wives and children of the captains abandoned the vessels, packed into 200 whaleboats and began a desperate 90-mile journey to Icy Cape, where seven other whaling ships were waiting.

In a statement written after a captains’ meeting, they said:

We think it would not be prudent to leave a single soul to look after our vessels, as the first westerly gale will crowd the ice ashore and either crush the ships or drive them high upon the beach. Three of the fleet have already been crushed, and two are now lying hove-out, which have been crushed by the ice, and are leaking badly.

We have now five wrecked crews distributed among us. We have barely room to swing at anchor between the pack of ice and the beach, and we are lying in three fathoms of water. Should we be cast on the beach it would be at least eleven months before we could look for assistance, and in all probability nine out of ten would die of starvation or scurvy before the opening of spring.

Rowing through stormy, ice-strewn seas and dragging the whaleboats across fields of jagged ice, the crews reached the other ships without losing even one of their number, Barr writes in an account of their escape, but the rescuers had to jettison all of their whale oil, bone and whaling gear to take the castaways aboard.

The NOAA team searched a 30-mile stretch of water off Wainwright, Alaska.

He says the survivors all disembarked safely in Honolulu. “It is a very, very incredible story,” he says.

Five years later, at the same spot where the fleet of 33 sank, 12 more whaling ships were lost in pack ice but with more tragic results: 47 crewmembers died. Barr says that between 1848 and 1914, 50 whaling ships were lost to ice in the Chukchi Sea, which — along with the destruction of 22 Arctic whalers by the Confederate warship Shenandoah in June 1865 and competition from the emerging oil boom — contributed to the ultimate demise of U.S. whaling. Barr, in an expedition log, notes that the 1871 disaster alone cost $1.6 million, equal to at least $30.8 million in 2016 dollars.

“This was a staggering loss to the industry, particularly to the whaling port of New Bedford, where a significant number of these ships were home-ported,” he writes.

Barr says the New Bedford whalers, among them the 108-foot Roman, 117-foot Seneca and 118-foot Thomas Dickason, and others from New London, Connecticut, Honolulu, San Francisco and elsewhere, had been hunting bowhead whales. The ships stayed as late into fall as they could to bring home whale oil to fuel the lamps of their day, baleen to make consumer items such as umbrellas and corsets, and whalebone for decorative work.

The cost of the 1871 disaster was $1.6 million — about $30.8 million today.

Barr says whalers began to push north into Arctic waters — one of the last refuges of the bowhead — in 1848 as the behemoths became scarce elsewhere. By the 1870s, petroleum was depressing the price of whale oil, bowheads were more difficult to find, and whalers were staying in the Arctic later and taking more risks to bring home their goods.

“They stayed longer; they would go farther east — to Herschel Island — and winter on Herschel [on the Beaufort Sea], where they could get frozen in way too quickly,” he says. “They had to take those risks. Sometimes they walked away. Sometimes they didn’t.”

Sea-level rise and erosion have pushed the northwest Alaska coast back, so Barr and his team searched for the wrecks farther offshore than where they originally came to rest. Barr says the team found the hulls buried under sediment by surveying the bottom with side-scan sonar, magnetometers and an underwater camera system. In addition to the hulls, they found anchors, fasteners, ballast and brick-lined pots used to render whale blubber into oil.

The expedition has provided a detailed and comprehensive survey of an historically significant area and solid evidence of historic wrecks there, Barr says. The information will be turned over to the state of Alaska so it can protect the site.

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.