Archaeologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration believe they have discovered the hulls of two 1800s whaling ships that sank off the Arctic coast of Alaska with 30 other ships more than 140 years ago.

The Discovery

The expedition to find the ship


s kicked off in September, when a team of archaeologists from NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Maritime Heritage Program began searching a 30-mile stretch of Chukchi Sea coast, near Wainwright. Pieces of the ships had been recovered by local Inupiats and had washed ashore, littering beaches between Wainwright and Point Franklin with timber.

“With less ice in the Arctic as a result of climate change, archaeologists now have more access to potential shipwreck sites than ever before,” NOAA said in a statement.

The NOAA team which made the discovery used sonar and sensing technology, which helped them “plot the ‘magnetic signature’ of the two wrecks, including the outline of their flattened hulls,” a NOAA release said. They also discovered anchors, fasteners, ballast and brick-lined pots used to turn whale blubber into oil.

“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, NOAA archaeologist and project co-director. “But until now, no one had found definitive proof of any of the lost fleet beneath the water.”

This map shows the area that was surveyed during the search for the Lost Whaling Fleets 2015 expedition. Credit: M. Lawrence/NOAA

This map shows the area that was surveyed during the search for the Lost Whaling Fleets 2015 expedition. Credit: M. Lawrence/NOAA

The Ships and Their Ultimate Demise

The ships are likely part of a group of 33 ships from Hawaii, California and New England that were crushed and sank after becoming trapped in an ice pack in August of 1871, according to NOAA. Most of the vessels were destroyed “in a matter of weeks,” stranding more than 1,200 men, women and children in the Arctic.

Abandonment of the whalers in the Arctic Ocean, September 1871, including the George, Gayhead, and Concordia. Scanned from the original Harper's Weekly 1871. Courtesy of Robert Schwemmer Maritime Library

Abandonment of the whalers in the Arctic Ocean, September 1871, including the George, Gayhead, and Concordia. Scanned from the original Harper’s Weekly 1871. Courtesy of Robert Schwemmer Maritime Library

One of the few existing first-hand accounts of the events was recorded by Zeph Pease in the third volume of the History of New Bedford, the Massachusetts city where many of the vessels were from. William F. Williams was aboard his father’s whaling ship, the Monticello, during the disaster, and described life at sea with the group, as well as some of the sinkings:

“September 2d the brig ‘Comet’ was crushed by getting between a grounded floe of ice and the moving pack. On the 7th the bark ‘Roman’ was crushed in a similar manner, only in this case the pack performed one of its peculiar tricks of relaxing its pressure, allowing the floe against the ship to draw back, as though gathering its energy for another attack, whereupon the ship immediately sank, giving the crew scant time in which to save themselves. On the 8th the bark “Awashonks” was crushed and pushed partly out to ice.”

The group burned some of the abandoned ships, leaving only one that would eventually be freed from the ice. They then rowed more than 90 miles in small whaleboats to Icy Cape, where a smaller fleet of seven ships picked them up.

“Several of them had lost anchors, but the captains had promised they would hold on as long as they could, but the most assuring message was brought from Captain Dowden, of the ‘Progress,’ who said, ‘Tell them all I will wait for them as long as I have an anchor left and a spar to carry a sail.’”

Miraculously, no one died in the incident but it has been cited as “one of the major causes of the demise of commercial whaling in the United States,” according to NOAA.

The loss was an estimated $1.6 million — $22.5 million in 2000 dollars, according to the New England Historical Society.

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