Search for the Lost Whaling Fleets of the Western Arctic

Background Information

Bradley W. Barr, Ph.D., NOAA/ONMS Maritime Heritage Program, Co-Principal Investigator and Chief Scientist

“Search for the Lost Whaling Fleets of the Western Arctic,” conducted in August of 2015, brings the NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program to this remote and challenging region for the first time in the more than four decades since the creation of the National Marine Sanctuary Program. Sometimes it takes a while to achieve extraordinary goals.

Being an avid reader of Arctic history, I long ago encountered the story of Thomas Welcome Roys, a whaling captain, entrepreneur, and inventor, who, with a pistol at his side and the cover of fog to help calm his anxious crew, carefully navigated the Bark Superior through the Bering Strait in 1848. This was the first time a Yankee whaler had sailed into the terra incognito of the Arctic Ocean. They were in hot pursuit of new sources of oil to light the world (interestingly, a similar pursuit to what is happening now in this very same place). 

The Superior emerged from the summer fogs of the Western Chukchi Sea surrounded by a large aggregation of fat and slow-swimming whales unknown to Roys and his crew, but this Bowhead whale would change the course of whaling history and ultimately play a central role in the industry’s demise at the beginning of the 20th Century. 

The Yankee whalers knew how to catch whales, and within 20 years of the opening of the Arctic by Roys, the Bowhead whale populations were significantly depleted, considerably more wary of approaching whaleboats, and therefore simply “harder to catch.”  What this really meant was “take more risks”...whaling ships were staying later in the summer when the coastal ice was thickening and the severe weather was coming fast, and travelling farther East across the top of Alaska, into the Beaufort Sea, which iced faster and leads were more ephemeral. 

As a result of taking these additional risks, the losses of Arctic whaling fleets to storms and ice grew more frequent, and the industry was not robust enough to endure. Between 1849 and 1912, more than 160 whaling ships were abandoned and lost, leaving a legacy of shipwrecks and artifacts scattered throughout the Northern Bering Sea and along the shore and nearshore waters of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas. About half of these whalers were lost along a stretch of the Chukchi coast between Icy Cape and Point Barrow. This is why we have come to a still largely unexplored place in the Arctic. We hope to contribute to writing the final chapter of this compelling story.

Utilizing state-of-the-art underwater mapping technology, we are searching for what remains of this “lost whaling fleet.” Funded by the NOAA Office of Exploration and Research, in collaboration with the NOAA Office of Coast Survey and the Alaska Region of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, as well as with expertise, investment, and active participation of technology partners Edgetech and Hypack – leaders in the seabed mapping technology industry – we are comprehensively mapping this graveyard of whaling heritage, an area of great significance in the global whaling heritage landscape, documenting what remains of the scattered remnants of these ships. 

Through the month of August 2015, a team of seabed mapping specialists and NOAA maritime archaeologists will navigate these waters once again, not in pursuit of Leviathan, but what that pursuit left in its wake.  

The essays below will help you to understand the goals and objectives of the mission and provide additional context and information about the places being explored and the science, tools, and technologies being used.