Wreckage Of Sunken Whaling Ships Discovered Off Alaskan Coast

Over 1,200 whalers were forced to abandon their vessels after becoming trapped in pack ice in September 1871. This image was scanned from the original Harper's Weekly 1871, courtesy of Robert Schwemmer/Maritime Library.

The sunken remains of two ill-fated whaling ships have been found off the coast of Alaska, 144 years after they became crushed by pack ice, forcing all crew members to abandon their vessels. Though all were later rescued, the event marks one of the greatest catastrophes in the history of U.S whaling, and resulted in the loss of an entire fleet of 33 ships.

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, whale oil was used around the world for heating, candle wax, soap, and a number of other purposes. As such, whaling was pretty big business, and attracted fleets from across the world to the Arctic each summer, when the ice relented and several species of whales migrated northwards.

However, the conditions at the top of the world can be unpredictable, as this particular fleet discovered to their peril in September 1871, when their ships became trapped in ice before they had a chance to manoeuvre away. Since the disaster, various artefacts from the sunken vessels have been discovered floating in the sea or washed up on the shore. And researchers have now located two of the ships for the first time.

Using sonar and other submarine-sensing equipment, a team of archaeologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) surveyed the waters along a 48-kilometer (30-mile) stretch of coastline near Wainwright, Alaska. In doing so, they were able to plot the outline of two flattened hulls, along with other items such as anchors, ballast and blubber-boiling equipment.

The researchers found anchors, rigging equipment, and other structural features of the sunken ships. NOAA

Until now, attempts to uncover the downed fleet had been thwarted by the thick layer of pack ice that covers much of the Arctic for large periods of the year, although a steady decrease in the amount of ice present during the height of summer over the past four decades has opened up new opportunities for conducting the search. As a consequence, the team was finally able to locate the ships last September, when the Arctic sea ice reaches its yearly minimum.

Reacting to the exciting discovery, project co-director Brad Barr said in a statement: “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.”

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