Brad Barr, PhD, NOAA/ONMS Maritime Heritage Program
In August 2015, a team of maritime archaeologists from NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries traveled to the Arctic to search for 19th Century whaling shipwrecks. The “Search for the Lost Whaling Fleets of the Western Arctic” expedition conducted seabed mapping surveys along the coast of the Chukchi Sea. In 1871, 32 whaling ships were trapped in sea ice in this area and abandoned. Prior to the expedition, this nearshore area was largely unexplored and poorly mapped. The purpose of the search was to determine if 144 years after having been abandoned, was there any wreckage of the lost ships, and if so, to document their status and condition. Approximately 20 square miles of seabed was mapped; six wreckage sites were identified and three documented. Using a drop camera system, the sites were found to be relatively intact pieces of wreckage that appeared to be from at least two of the whaling ships lost during the years whaling was conducted in the area from around 1850 until the beginning of the 20th Century. The data collected will be used to help preserve the significant underwater cultural heritage of this important place in the global whaling heritage landscape.