Nearly 150 years after they were trapped and sheared in half by packs of Arctic ice, the ships from a long-lost whaling fleet have finally returned to human view.
A total of 33 ships were shredded by ice off the shore of Alaska‘s North Slope in September 1871, stranding more than 1,200 crew members and their families in small, open whaleboats in the Chukchi Sea.
Although the passengers were eventually saved, all of the expedition’s cargo of whale blubber, oil, and bones was lost, after the few surviving ships were forced to jettison their goods in order to make room for the stranded.
The loss of the fleet made national headlines, totaling more than $25 million in today’s dollars — a debacle of such proportions that it’s said to have spelled the beginning of the end of commercial whaling in the United States.
But today, in the same place and at the same time of year as when the whalers were waylaid by ice, government archaeologists have been able to access the site freely, thanks, they said, to global warming.
Dwindling Arctic sea ice allowed researchers to survey the region of the wrecks this fall, surveying 50 kilometers [30 miles] of coastline between the towns of Wainwright and Point Franklin, Alaska.
There, sonar and magnetic detectors picked up the traces of at least two of the fleet’s missing ships, including the bottom halves of their hulls and a variety of ballast, gear, and cargo. [Discover another recent shipwreck find: “Radioactive Wreck of WWII Aircraft Carrier Discovered Near San Francisco Bay“]
While earlier research had picked up some signs of the abandoned fleet on land — such as whaling gear that had been salvaged by the local Inupiat, and ships’ timbers scattered on the shore — this is the first archaeological evidence of the submerged wrecks themselves, scientists said.
“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, archaeologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a press statement.
“But until now, no one had found definitive proof of any of the lost fleet beneath the water.”
The artifacts found among the shipwrecks include a variety of heavy equipment, such as brick-lined pots used to reduce whale blubber into oil, as well as anchors.
These finds seem to confirm the theory that the ships were run into a sandbar about a hundred meters from shore and then ripped apart by approaching ice.
“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,” observed James Delgado, maritime heritage director for NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.
According to accounts at the time, the fleet originally entered Alaska‘s frigid coastal waters in August, searching for bowhead whales.
The captains of the doomed vessels — including the George, Gayhead, and Concordia — expected easterly winds to pick up and move the sea ice that had been collecting in the area away from shore.
But the winds failed to arrive, and pack ice slowly encroached on the 33 ships, at first trapping them, and then gradually crushing many of them to pieces over the course of weeks.
The ice ripped through the hulls, shearing off the tops of the ships and tumbling their timbers onto the shore, leaving the laden bottom halves jammed against the sandbar.
In time, the stranded passengers rowed their whaleboats to the fleet’s remaining seven vessels— which had escaped the pack ice in open water some 130 kilometers [80 miles] away. [Read about a recent discovery from an even more harrowing tale: “200-Year-Old Shipwreck Survivors’ Camp Found on Alaska Island“]
Although it cost the expedition all of its takings to accommodate the passengers, the seven vessels dumped their catch, stopped their hunt, and sailed to Honolulu, Hawaii, to return the crew — many of whom were native Hawaiians — back home.
In all, the archaeologists said, the discovery of the ships from the Whaling Disaster of 1871 not only demonstrates researchers’ abilities to piece together a nearly forgotten episode in one of America’s remotest regions, it’s also testament to the effects that climate change is having on our understanding of the history of the Arctic.
“This exploration provides an opportunity to write the last chapter of this important story of American maritime heritage,” Barr said, “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.”