When archaeologists searched the remote northwestern coast of Alaska this fall, they didn't think they'd find much of interest, or anything intact, due to the area's extreme weather and destructive cycles of freezing and thawing. But then they were surprised to come across large sections of wooden hulls from two nineteenth century whaling ships, as well as artifacts like anchors, chains, struts, and pots for whale oil.
"One would expect anything sitting on the seabed for that long to have been ground to sawdust by the ice," says Brad Barr, an archaeologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the project co-director.
The ships were first discovered by the archaeologists in September, though NOAA released its report Wednesday, after completing an analysis of the findings. The cold water helped preserve the material, though the artifacts are still heavily encrusted with marine organisms.
The discovery may not have been possible if it not for global warming, Barr notes. The warmer weather and reduced sea ice made it possible for the team to work longer into the fall. The archaeologists had wanted to survey the area because of historical accounts of the loss of 50 to 60 whaling ships there in the second half of the nineteenth century and first few years of the twentieth century.
The team used the latest sonar and magnetic imaging technology to scan about 17 square miles (44 square kilometers) along the coast of the Chukchi Sea, near Wainwright, Alaska, based on reports that local Inupiat people had found bits of debris there.
The hulls of the ships were found roughly 100 yards from shore, pressed against a submerged sandbar.
Although Barr says the team "has no way of knowing exactly which two ships have been found," he says the odds suggest they may be some of the 33 whaling vessels that were dramatically abandoned in the area in 1871, after they got trapped in the ice. More than 1,200 whalers were rescued by nearby boats, with all surviving.
Losses from the incident were around $33 million in today's dollars, and it was a major blow to the American whaling industry, Barr says, which was already reeling from the increasing use of petroleum oil in place of whale oil.
Archaeologists study a colossal Olmec stone head in La Venta, Mexico in this 1947 National Geographic photo. The Olmec civilization, the first in Mesoamerica, offers valuable clues into the development of the rest of the region.
"It was a contributory factor to the end of Yankee whaling in the U.S.," says Barr, who notes that the ships had been based out of New Bedford, Massachusetts, a major whaling center.
Barr says he would love to take a team of divers to explore the shipwrecks up close, although he doesn't currently have the funding for an expedition. In addition, he says the state of Alaska—which controls the area—may want to consider protecting the site from any future oil or other development. It's also possible that more shipwrecks are yet to be discovered in the region.