The NOAA Looks Back at Failed Whaling Expedition

The whaling industry, once booming, was already declining when a whaling expedition in 1871 became a disaster. This expedition consisted of 40 ships, sailing near Wrainwright, Alaska. The crew of 32 of the ships were forced to evacuate and abandon them in the ice, creating a disastrous loss to the whaling industry. For years following, expeditions were sent to this area to try and recover remains from the lost ships and to learn from what was found. In 2005, archaeological researchers were sent by the National Geographic Society, The National Science Foundation, and the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium on a similar mission to find and study the failed expedition. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration later documented the results of their findings.

The archaeologists were tasked with this four year project not only to benefit future offshore surveys but also to discover exactly what happened during the failed expedition. In order to do this, they had to adjust their understanding of the shoreline near which remains of the vessels were found, as it would have been different at the time of the 1871 expedition. They also had to estimate where ship remains may have traveled over the course of over 100 years. The researchers built on the findings of past archaeologists who had explored the sights to develop conclusions about both of these factors.

The researchers were tasked with uncovering remains that spanned almost 100 miles by searching both the land and the water. They used technology such as remote sensors and techniques such as scuba diving with underwater metal detectors to explore the area under the water. Their exploration above the water consisted of searching for signs of wreckage and miscellaneous artifacts from the 1871 ships. They also were able to study the shoreline from above by flying over the land.

As time passed, the archaeological researchers were able to learn more about the erratic behavior of this Alaskan water and adjusted their methods accordingly. They located which area of water was most likely to hold wreckage based on the water’s behavior and changed the technology they were using to get a clearer view of the underwater space. Unfortunately, they were faced with uncooperative conditions. For example, erosion in the wreckage area is high, and the ice building and moving over the years most likely entrapped remnants of the 1871 fleet ships.

No matter how much specific areas in the large wreck site were singled out, no one piece of wreckage could be matched to a specific ship. This is not only because many of the remains were lost, but also due to the fact that all of the whaling ships were highly similar. Furthermore, many artifacts washed ashore from the wreckage could not be claimed by the researchers because nearby Inupiat villages used pieces of the ships for construction or in personal collections. Thankfully, the villagers took the researchers to the sites and allowed them to inspect the artifacts.

Study of the 1871 whaling ‘disaster’ is important in both archaeological and ocean exploration contexts. The wreckage holds a lot of insight into the past, and it also holds knowledge about the dangers of that specific portion of waters near Wrainwright, Alaska. Although whaling is now generally frowned upon, this information is key in further water travel and ocean exploration in that area.