Search for the Lost Whaling Fleets of the Western Arctic

Expedition Purpose: Why Are Scientists Exploring the Nearshore Waters of the Arctic?

Rich in exploration history, the Arctic captivates us as an intriguing wilderness still foreign to many. The whaling history in the Arctic region goes back more than 1,000 years and there are significant, yet undiscovered, maritime heritage resources (shipwrecks) throughout the region. In contemporary time, this area is experiencing the impact of a warming climate, and human interest in economic opportunities such as oil and gas exploration and commercial shipping. Exploration expeditions to this region provide us with information to best guide emerging economic development and to preserve our maritime heritage.

As the place where American whaling met its demise in the early 20th Century, the Western Arctic is a very significant place in the global whaling heritage landscape. As the first truly global industry and critically important to the U.S. economy in the late 18th through the 19th Centuries, whaling is something we as a society should better understand and appreciate for the many contributions it has made to our collective history. Whale oil lit the world, provided jobs and economic development opportunities, and in some cases, like in the Hawaiian Islands, drove many aspects of social change that had a profound effect on the history of the ports that served the industry. While our perception of whaling today is somewhat different, in the 19th Century, Yankee whaling was central to the emerging global influence of the U.S. in the century that followed. 

What Are Scientists Exploring in the Arctic?

This summer, explorers are heading to the nearshore waters of the Chukchi Sea, near Wainwright, Alaska, to map a particularly important place in this Western Arctic landscape.  In 1871 and 1876, around 50 whaling ships were abandoned and lost, and throughout the time whaling was taking place in the Western Arctic, from 1848 to around 1914, approximately 80 whalers were documented as lost in this “Graveyard of the Arctic.”  Until today, the area has been largely unexplored, insufficiently mapped, and our knowledge of what remains of these shipwrecked whalers is limited to only historical accounts.             

The loss of these nearly 50 whaling ships within this five-year period is widely attributed as one of the major causes of the demise of commercial whaling in the U.S., which represented one of the most important elements of the 19th Century American economy. These losses are considered highly significant events in the history of American whaling, making this part of the Chukchi coast a place of unparalleled importance to our global whaling heritage. This place has been specifically mentioned by the Arctic Council as a potential Arctic marine area of “heightened ecological and cultural significance” for its exceptional whaling heritage value. It is also a place identified as a potential location for the installation of a pipeline to carry petroleum from the Chukchi oil and gas fields.  More specifically identifying the maritime heritage resources present in such a site of potentially global historical significance is critically important if these resources are to be preserved as human development increases in the warming Arctic. 

What Are the Technologies Being Used During This Expedition?

This mission is focused on using non-invasive mapping technologies to search for what remains of that ill-fated fleet, and if found, to capture photo-documentation of what remains.

Using the 50-foot charter vessel R/V Ukpik, the Search for the Lost Whaling Fleet - 2015 expedition’s objectives are to:

  • Conduct acoustic and magnetic surveys along the shallow waters of the Arctic coast to identify potential shipwreck sites. Scientists will also be using a technologically sophisticated marine magnetometry system called a “gradiometer” (two magnetometers towed horizontally). This tool collects at-sea data integrated with ambient changes in the Earth’s magnetic field collected by a base station magnetometer installed on the beach nearby. This tool will identify ferrous metal objects and components from these ships both on the surface and buried deeper into the seabed. As the mapping data is being acquired, it will be reviewed and analyzed by the mission team to identify “targets” that may be shipwreck sites;
  • Use the acoustic and magnetic surveys to further investigate the region using towed side scan sonar and a drop camera system to collect higher-resolution acoustic images and photo and video documentation; and
  • Provide mapping data so that researchers from other disciplines can make use of it for other purposes, and potentially contribute to NOAA’s charting mission in the Arctic. 

The Arctic is a place of considerable importance and a place that is experiencing great change. Come explore along with us as we discover the wonders of this uncharted wilderness.