Researchers hope rare find of wrecked whaler holds clues about sailors' lives

Researchers hope rare find of wrecked whaler holds clues about sailors' lives

CALGARY — Matthew Ayre was transcribing logbooks from British whaling ships in March when he became intrigued by entries describing a whaler that wrecked off the east coast of Baffin Island early in the last century.

Ayre says most of the hundreds of whaling ships that sunk in the North Atlantic over the years were crushed by ice in deep water and never found. But sitting in front of him were entries giving a good description of the spot where one vessel, the Nova Zembla, might be resting near shore. 

Combined with newspaper accounts from the time, Ayre says it became possible to narrow down the search area to a reef off a beach in Baffin Bay.

"It's at that point I realize it's quite shallow and it's quite accessible," said Ayre, a climate historian with the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary.

"I said, 'You know, we might be able to find this,' and we went from there."

An underwater archeologist, Mike Moloney, who works across the hall from Ayre, was not quite as optimistic but agreed to help. They secured funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, then hitched a ride in August on a tourist expedition ship that agreed to stop near the site while they set forth in an inflatable boat.

The catch? The ship had a schedule to keep and could only give the shipwreck hunters seven hours, so they had to work fast.

"Trying to find anything underwater is really difficult," Moloney said. "You could be oftentimes right next to whatever it is you're looking for and miss it because of visibility or because of chop in the water."

All 42 hands aboard the Nova Zembla, an oak, three-masted ship with a 58-horsepower steam engine, survived after the ship got hung up on the reef and sank in 1902.

Ayre explains the whale oil trade was ending by the turn of the last century, but endured at the Nova Zembla's home port of Dundee, Scotland. The city had a jute factory and whale oil was the best for treating the plant-based fibres to make ropes, fabrics and clothing.

The ship's voyages lasted six to nine months, during which the crew would hunt bowhead whales and store the blubber in casks for rendering in Britain. But as big as the whaling trade was, the researchers say not a lot of records survived, and little was kept that might give a glimpse of the sailors' lives.

"It's not Royal Navy, it's not Hudson's Bay Company, where meticulous records were kept in an archive. Most of this stuff that came off these ships as far as writing is concerned was the property of the company or the captain," Moloney explained, adding it often ended up in the trash.

"This is largely a story of history that's kind of lost. So really the only way to learn what life was like for these ships is to find personal items from the sailors."

When Ayre and Moloney arrived at the reef Aug. 31, the first place they looked was a spot identified by a colleague using satellite image. Upon closer examination from their inflatable boat, it turned out to be a large, ship-shaped rock formation. The two researchers then piloted the boat back and forth using sonar, hoping to examine the images in more detail later.

They noticed wood on the beach that resembled a ship's timbers, but conditions prevented them from going ashore, so they launched a drone to get a closer look. They realized the timbers were a mast, a yardarm, and a piece of a ship's rib.

Using the wind and waves as a guide, they narrowed down where on the reef to look and launched a remote-controlled underwater camera.

Ayre says one of the historical accounts said the Nova Zembla dropped its anchor in an unsuccessful attempt to lighten its load and free itself from the reef.

"Almost immediately we found an anchor and an anchor chain right where these accounts said it would be," Ayre said.

Time was up and they had to return to the ship. Back on board, they reviewed their underwater video and spotted items with right angles and other unnatural shapes the researchers are confident came from the Nova Zembla.

Based on what they found, they're planning to return to the site next year.

"I really want to find personal effects from the sailors themselves, if there are any — sea chests from the sailors themselves," Ayre said.

"They're likely not in one piece, but you never know, we might get lucky."

— By Rob Drinkwater in Edmonton

The Canadian Press