Looking for Lost Ships

Fleet that sank in winter of 1871 is sought in Chukchi Sea
George Bryson
09-15-2007

Anchorage Daily News

Some people search for sunken ships one vessel at a time. A group of Alaskans, led by a Minnesotan, is looking for an entire fleet.

That would be the great Lost Whaling Fleet that became trapped in the Arctic ice pack near the present-day village of Wainwright in 1871 and eventually sank in the Chukchi Sea.

Though no one aboard died, 31 tall-masted sailing ships were lost in what was probably the greatest financial disaster in the history of American whaling. The industry never fully recovered.

"The event, of course, is of incredible historical significance," says Randolph Beebe, leader of a National Geographic Society-sponsored expedition to find the abandoned ships.

"If we're able to locate one, I think it's going to be remarkably well-preserved," thanks to the frigid waters, said Beebe, 48, a scuba-diver and shipwreck specialist based in Duluth, Minn.

With additional funding from the National Science Foundation and advice from village elders, Beebe and five other party members returned to the scene of the disaster this summer to continue what is intentionally a low-budget, multi-year search.

Equipment for the expedition includes little more than a 14-foot inflatable boat with outboard motor, a GPS, a side-scan sonar system (capable of detecting any debris on the ocean floor) and scuba gear.

In a previous outing two years ago, Beebe used the same system to search 13 square miles of coastline between Wainwright and Point Franklin, where he recorded dozens of promising signs. Before he could don a diving suit to inspect them, however, a storm moved in that outlasted the team's allotted time.

This year's 11-day follow-up expedition included Beebe, a second scuba diver and four Alaskans, including a marine archaeologist, a historian and two Inupiat guides.

All kept their eyes open for polar bears -- which never reached their camp, located about 18 miles northwest of Wainwright. But after a couple of days, the weather turned windy once again, and the sea-search ground to a halt.

"The seas were three to four feet," Beebe said this week in a telephone interview. "When you're towing a side-scan sonar, your platform has to be really stable. ... You have to be out there when the conditions are right."

Stuck on shore, the team turned its attention to scouring the beach for whaling-ship debris -- and proceeded to document the location of nearly 300 marine artifacts, including a piece of a whaling ship hull 60 feet long.

"Some of (the artifacts) are tiny," including brass and copper fittings and wooden pegs that were used as nails, said team archaeologist Jenya Anichenko of Anchorage. "But tiny doesn't mean they aren't significant."

Of special interest, she said, was the discovery of more evidence that 19th-century Inupiats appropriated wood and metal from the shipwrecks to fashion tools and weapons and build homes.

"There is a lot of material that's been literally pushed (landward) by storms and ice over the years that's way back in the tundra," said team historian Mike Burwell, who maintains a database of Alaska shipwrecks.

"Of course the locals have been salvaging stuff for 136 years," Burwell said, citing stories that were shared by 75-year-old Wainwright elder Ben Ahmaogak Sr., the team guide.

"We had oral testimony (from Ahmaogak) that he's been making harpoons and fishing lures out of the brass all his life."

Just as some of Ahmaogak's elders did before him.

IN DANGEROUS WATERS

The same year that miners were striking it rich in the gold fields of California, Yankee whalers first began to do the same just north of the Bering Strait.

The year was 1849 -- when 50 whaling ships ventured as far north as the Chukchi Sea and caught more than 500 bowhead whales among them.

Word of that success quickly spread in the whaling ports of New England. The next summer more than 200 whaling ships ventured north of the Strait and killed an estimated 2,067 whales.

But the availability of bowheads wasn't endless.

By the late 1860s, the Arctic Ocean whaling fleet was forced to venture further northeast into the increasingly dangerous waters near Barrow in order to find sufficient whales.

The nearness of the ice and the narrowness of the open lead there in early summer worked to their advantage, keeping all the bowheads sequestered. At summer's end the whalers sailed back out before the winter ice could catch them.

In 1871, however, the fleet lingered too long. A shift in wind in late August had blown the Arctic ice pack against the shore near Point Belcher, not far from present-day Wainwright. And it wasn't going to blow back out.

Caught behind the ice with food supplies dwindling, the captains of 32 square-rigged whaling vessels -- mostly two-masted brigs and three- and four-masted barks out of New England -- conferred and agreed to order everyone to abandon ship.

More than 1,200 men, women and children slipped into dories and proceeded to row, sail and drag the vessels across the ice to the west. After about 60 miles, they finally reached open water near Icy Cape. There a half dozen other Yankee whale ships took them aboard, and all were saved.

What the departing sailors left behind, however, was a dazzling jumble of some of the greatest whaling ships afloat -- the Concordia, the Seneca, the Emily Morgan. Three-hundred and 400-ton ships laden with oil and bone. The vessels alone were valued at more than $1.6 million, a then-astronomical sum.

Also left behind was what amounted to a veritable windfall for coastal Alaskans.

In the winter of 1871-72, after the Yankee sailors had departed, word of the abandoned vessels spread quickly among the region's Inupiat hunters.

Gathering at the site of a pre-contact village at Point Franklin, they boarded the vessels -- even as the ice proceeded to crush them to pieces -- and salvaged as much of the supplies and useful materials as they could. They knew the ships were going down.

And they did.

ALL BUT ONE WAS GONE

When agents of the owners returned to the Arctic the following summer, they discovered that only one of the lost-fleet vessels was still seaworthy. A few had beached themselves near the shore and were damaged beyond repair. But all the rest were gone.

Now the sunken hulls have been covered over by more than a century of ocean-floor sediment that marine archaeologists say constantly shifts back and forth in a coastal zone. The precise location of the ships is no longer certain.

"It's not that the shipwreck is moving, but the sediment on the sea floor is," Burwell said. "It's burying ... exposing ... burying ... exposing."

In 1998 a federal energy agency, the U.S. Coast Guard, the NASA space program and various university scientists combined forces to probe the waters off Wainwright for the ships. Doing so allowed NASA to test-drive a submersible rover vehicle destined to be sent to Mars.

The hull-detecting sonar equipment on the ice-breaker failed to work during the expedition. But the Mars-bound submersible was more successful. Randomly patrolling the ocean floor, it sent back video images that showed a mound 60 feet down that was probably the hull of a ship, with ribs just discernible beneath a layer of silt.

"That's basically where Randy started," Burwell said of his team leader. "He looked at that video clip and decided to focus his surveying on the fact that there had been hits in that particular area."

A member of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Preservation Society as well as a commercial airline pilot, Beebe and other divers had previously located several lost vessels in Lake Superior. But after a 2003 trip to the Arctic, he began to focus his attention solely on Alaska.

After conferring with the Barrow Arctic Science Consortium and government officials, he received permission to explore the area in the summer of 2005. He decided to focus his effort on an 8-mile-by-3-mile area that was generally south of the 1998 expedition.

At first it appeared promising. In 2005 his sonar equipment picked up more than 70 "anomalies," Beebe said. But then the weather intervened, as it did again this summer.

Could a larger research vessel have managed it?

The answer's probably yes, Beebe said. But part of his goal has been to devise a relatively inexpensive, small-scale way to conduct the same research, one that avoids the need of landing major grants.

"I guess it's a toss-up," he said. "We're out there and we're on site and we're searching because we're able to do it economically."

And he plans to be out there again next summer, looking for the lost whaling fleet somewhere near Wainwright.

Find George Bryson online at adn.com/contact/gbryson or call 257-4318.