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Lost whaling fleet discovered in Alaska

Feb 29, 2016
Gay Head, one of the ships trapped by pack ice close to the Alaskan Arctic shore in 1871, hailed from New Bedford, Mass.

Gay Head, one of the ships trapped by pack ice close to the Alaskan Arctic shore in 1871, hailed from New Bedford, Mass.

New Bedford Whaling Museum

Marine archaeologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) discovered the hulls of two 1800s whaling ships and 31 others that sank off the Arctic coast of Alaska 144 years ago. The identity of the two hulls is yet to be determined.

The shipwrecks are most likely the remains of 33 ships known to have been trapped by pack ice close to the Alaskan Arctic shore in September 1871. The whaling captains had counted on a wind shift from the east to drive the ice out to sea as it had done in the past. Unfortunately, the wind shift never came. 

The ships were destroyed in a matter of weeks, leaving more than 1,200 whalers stranded until they could be rescued by seven ships of the fleet standing by about 80 miles to the south in open water off Icy Cape. No one died in the incident, but it is cited as one of the major causes of the demise of commercial whaling in the U.S.

“Abandonment of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean September 1871.” Some 33 ships were caught in the ice near Wainwright Inlet.

Ted and Ellie Congdon, Huntington Library

With less ice in the Arctic as a result of climate change, archaeologists now have more access to potential shipwreck sites. Using state-of-the-art sonar and sensing technology, the NOAA team was able to plot the “magnetic signature” of the two wrecks, including the outline of their flattened hulls. The wreck site also revealed anchors, fasteners, ballast and brick-lined pots used to render whale blubber into oil.

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.

On Sept. 12, 1871, the captains of the 33 whaling ships caught in the ice convened to consider their options for saving the 1,219 stranded mariners. The seven nearby ships in open water came to their rescue. However, to save such a large party, the rescuing whale ships had to jettison their cargoes of whale oil, bone and heavy whaling gear to make room for the survivors. The rescue ships were eventually able to safely sail out of the Arctic and back to their respective ports. 

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