Shipwrecks That Helped Doom a US Industry Are Found

2 went down while whaling off coast of Alaska
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 7, 2016 8:30 AM CST
Shipwrecks That Helped Doom a US Industry Are Found
A small anchor; a chain plate, which held rigging used to tighten masts; and an iron knee, which was likely part of the ship's frame.   (NOAA)

The hunt for an abandoned whaling fleet took NOAA archaeologists to what they describe as "one of the planet's most unexplored ocean regions": the waters off the Arctic coast of Alaska. There they say they've found two ships that have slumbered in the deep for almost a century and a half. And while the shipwrecks are associated with no human toll, an NOAA press release explains they did contribute to a death of sorts. The backstory: In September 1871, 33 of 40 whaling ships operating in the North Pacific—a group that had dwindled from 292 ships 25 years prior—found themselves trapped in ice. They were near the shore, and in prior years, the wind typically shifted, pushing the ice seaward and effectively unlocking the ships. That didn't happen that year, leaving 1,219 people "stranded at the top of the world."

Incredibly, they all survived, having made the decision to row 90 miles in whaling boats to the seven ships that had escaped the ice, reports KTVA. Still, the NOAA explains that the event is viewed as "one of the major causes of the demise of commercial whaling in the United States." A project co-director explains to the Alaska Dispatch News that while items have washed ashore over the years, no items tied to the lost fleet had been found beneath the water. Using modern sonar and sensing technology and aided by an absence of ice in the Chukchi Sea, the "magnetic signature" of the two ships was established down to the "outline of their flattened hulls." And while sea ice typically proves unfriendly to such relics, "we found artifacts that were just sitting" there in the fall of 2015, perhaps long protected by a sandbar. Among the finds: pots that rendered whale blubber into oil. (The ancient shipwreck capital of the world has been found.)

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