Remnants of a Whaling Disaster Have Been Discovered off the Coast of Alaska

A catastrophe wiped out an entire whaling fleet 144 years ago, now researchers have found some of the wrecks’ remains

Whaling Disaster
Crews abandon their ships during the Great Whaling Disaster of 1871. NOAA - Scanned from the original 1871 Harper’s Weekly, courtesy of Robert Schwemmer Maritime Library

Almost 144 years ago, more than 1,200 mariners and their families barely escaped with their lives from 33 whaling ships trapped in ice off of Alaska’s frigid Arctic coast. On Wednesday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) discovered two of the wrecks from the tragedy, dubbed the Whaling Disaster of 1871.

NOAA launched the Search for the Lost Whaling Fleets of the Western Arctic Expedition in August in an attempt to find an estimated 160 whaling ships thought to have been wrecked and abandoned throughout the Northern Bering Sea.

The 1871 Whaling Disaster was the most awe-inspiring of these wrecks. That’s because it wasn’t just a single incident. Rather in August 1871, 33 ships pursuing the bowhead whale in Arctic waters found themselves unexpectedly crammed between packed ice off the Alaskan shore. In previous years, winds from the east had pushed the ice out to sea, leaving an open channel for the ships to past through, but that year a reversal of wind patterns caused the ice to almost completely close in on the ships.

A report from the time describes how the brig Comet was decimated by the ice:

She was pinched until her timbers all snapped and the stern was forced out, and hung suspended for three or four days, being in the mean time thoroughly wrecked by the other vessels; then the ice relaxed its iron grip and she sun. Still our hardy whalemen hoped that the looked-for northeasterly gale would come, and felt greater uneasiness on account of the loss of time than because of their present peril.

When it soon became clear that none of the ships would survive, the whalers stopped worrying about lost time and instead began to fear whether they would be able to escape with their lives. By mid-September, everyone on the boats evacuated. Somehow all of the 1,219 people on board survived, taking smaller boats out of the strait to reach rescue ships waiting 80 miles away. All but one of the bigger whaling ships sank. Astonishingly, history repeated itself just five years later when another fleet was lost to the ice. The two disasters, combined with increasingly rare whale sightings and the declining value of whale oil, was what spelled the end of Arctic whaling.

The NOAA expedition used advanced sonar technology to scour a 30-mile stretch of coastline and discover the hulls of two wrecks. “Until now, no one had found definitive proof of any of the lost fleet beneath the water,” said Brad Barr, the project’s co-director, in a release.

Are there more remains off the shores of Point Franklin? Maybe—but their potential discovery comes with a heavy cost. Barr notes that the only reason the shipwrecks were able to be found was because there’s been less ice than ever in the Arctic area due to climate change.

(h/t the Washington Post)

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.