19th-century whalers ignored Inupiat advice before wreck: researcher

A researcher says that the crews of 19th-century whaling ships found on the seafloor of the Chukchi Sea ignored the advice of local Inupiat, causing the loss of 33 ships.

Sections of ships 'relatively undisturbed' after 144 years: scientist

This detail of "Abandonment of the Whalers In The Arctic Ocean September 1871" depicts several of the ships involved in near-disaster. Wainwright Inlet is in the background. (Ted and Ellie Congdon/Huntington Library)

A researcher says that the crews of 19th-century whaling ships found on the seafloor of the Chukchi Sea ignored the advice of local Inupiat, causing the loss of 33 ships.

Two ships were found late last week, which part of the larger, 33-vessel fleet that got stuck during a perilous voyage in 1871.

This map shows the area that was surveyed during the search for the Lost Whaling Fleets 2015 expedition. (M. Lawrence/NOAA)
"That particular year, the wind shifted and pushed the ice onto the shore, and with it went the 33 vessels that were trapped there with the 1,219 people on board, including women and children," said Bradley W. Barr.

Whaling captains routinely met with people from local Inupiat villages to trade for supplies and discuss the weather, said Barr.

"One of the things that the [locals] had told them was, 'Don't stay this year because it's going to be a bad year'. Unfortunately, the whalers didn't pay attention to that, and they ended up losing 33 vessels.

"So I guess the moral to the story is: 'pay attention to what you're told by the local people,' because it could save your ship and save your life."

Many crew members and families were native Hawaiians

Barr led the team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who searched for signs of the ships.

"Normally the wind would shift again and ice would move back offshore and they could sail out," he said. "In this case, the wind shift never came."

Crew members and their families were forced to abandon ship in stormy and dangerous waters. Around 500 of them were native Hawaiians. At the time, Hawaii was an important port for Arctic whaling.

"Clearly it was certainly out-of-habitat in many ways for those folks and I'm sure it was a bit of an extra struggle for them," said Barr.

Underwater cameras found anchors, chains, and ballasts — equipment that helped keep the boats stable during storms — plus pieces of triworks, the area of the ships where bowhead whale blubber was boiled down into oil.

"It's pretty remarkable that there were these pieces of wreckage on the seabed relatively undisturbed after 144 years being ground up by the sea ice," said Barr.