The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has unearthed the wreckage of two 19th century American whaling ships off the Arctic coast near Alaska.
Scientists from the environmental agency believe that the wrecks could be part of several other vessels that were stranded and sunk in this area of the ocean some 144 years ago.
NOAA archaeologist Brad Barr said they were able to discover two anchors, two hulls and a number of other artifacts at the site.
"One of the wrecks is infested with critters, with mussels all attached to one of the beams," Barr said.
"In general, for 144 years of being subjected to moving ice on top of them, I think it's pretty remarkable that they're in the state that they're in."
The NOAA scientists made use of records of first-hand accounts regarding the stranding of 33 whaling ships in 1871, as well as sonar and other sophisticated technology to detect magnetic signatures of the sunken vessels.
Stranded Whaling Ships
The late 1800s was marked by the rise of the whaling industry in the United States. Many companies in the north-eastern coast sent out massive ships known as whalers to different parts of the Pacific and Arctic oceans to hunt for whales.
As the industry grew, more and more whalers ventured to distant corners of the oceans in order to find more whales, which were starting to dwindle in numbers by that time.
In 1871, 33 whaling vessels were trapped in icy waters off the Alaskan coast. The captains of the whalers decided to wait for the ice to be broken up by the wind.
However, the wind did not shift as expected. The building ice slowly began to tear into the hull of the whalers, keeping the vessels in place until they were broken apart.
The captains of the whalers met on board one of the remaining ships, the Champion, to decide on how they can save the lives of 1,219 remaining crewmen and their family members that were stranded in the ice with them.
Barr explained it was a common practice for captains of whalers to take their family with them during hunting trips. Whaling took very long periods, which is why it was more practical for these captains to bring their wives and children along.
Many of their children grew up whaling and later became captains of whalers themselves, continuing the tradition.
The crews of the marooned whalers chose to abandon their ships. They were able to contact other whaling vessels that have been waiting for the missing fleet.
These ships located the stranded sailors and rescued them but they had to dump much of their cargo, including whale bone, oil and baleen, into the ocean in order to make room for everyone.
Ice continued to smash the abandoned whalers, which eventually sank after several weeks. The only remaining parts of these vessels were timbers and stray gear that occasionally washed ashore along the Alaskan coast.
No member of the stranded crew died during the incident. Many of the sailors went on to live in Honolulu and San Francisco, while others made their way back to the east coast.
Barr said the marooning of the 33 whalers cost the industry about $33.3 million in modern terms, and that it ended up contributing to the decline of whaling in the United States.
Impact Of Climate Change On Underwater Archaeology
According to Barr, climate change continues to affect their efforts in underwater archaeology, especially in the Arctic region.
The erosion of shorelines is causing many sunken ships and artifacts to be buried in sediment even further. This has caused archaeologists to resort to using acoustic mapping and magnetic traces in order to locate wreckages.
On the other hand, the warming of the climate over the years has lessened the levels of ice in the Arctic, giving scientists more time to look for potential archaeological sites.