Graduate discovers lost whaling ship in Arctic after 116 years

Zodiac searches the reef where Nova Zembla

Published on 13 September 2018

The wreckage of a Scottish whaling ship has been discovered in the Canadian High Arctic by two researchers using the historical documents and newspaper clippings connected to the 19th Century Arctic whaling trade.

The Nova Zembla, which hit a reef off the east coast of Baffin Island in 1902, stands to offer significant historical insight into life in an industry that dominated Canadian waters for centuries. This is believed to be the first of dozens of British whaling shipwrecks to be found in these waters.

With just a drone, a dinghy and only an eight-hour window, University of Sunderland PhD graduate Matthew Ayre alongside underwater archaeologist Michael Moloney located the previously unknown wreckage — and wood from the ship's mast still strewn across a beach.

Matthew who is now a Post-Doctoral Fellow at University of Calgary’s Arctic Institute of North America, alongside Michael, received support for the expedition from the University of Calgary and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS). They made their discovery on August 31, in just eight hours using drone footage and SONAR imaging deployed on a remote-operated underwater vehicle in a targeted five-square-kilometer search area identified through months of historical research.

“We were thrilled by this discovery and it's going to tell us a lot about what life was like aboard a whaler," said Matthew, who landed his role at Calgary as a result of his research on the ARCdoc project at Sunderland analysing historical logbooks recorded by explorers, whalers and merchants during epic expeditions between 1750 and 1850. The ARCdoc project was created to increase our scientific understanding of climate change in this environmentally important region.

Michael added: “This discovery was the culmination of months of research and preparation, and we can't wait to continue working with all our partners to further explore this site.”

“This is a previously unknown archaeological site, and the first High Arctic whaling ship ever discovered,” says John Geiger, Chief Executive Officer of the RCGS. “It is a remarkable story of historical sleuthing supported by fieldwork and adds considerably to the historical record by shedding new light on that treacherous, once great industry.”

Matthew, 31, from North Tyneside, came across details of the Nova Zembla wreck in March of this year while poring over historical documents for his climatological research at the Institute's SSHRC funded Northern Seas project, where he is compiling baseline information on sea ice and wind conditions in the Arctic. One of the documents was the logbook of the Diana, one of two whaling vessels that rescued the crew of the Nova Zembla, and it contained clues to the whereabouts of the wreck site in the fiord. Shortly after, Matthew then found a type-written version of a diary from a sailor aboard the Diana in 1903, the year after the wreck, which explained how they returned to the wreck site to salvage some equipment, including the rudder.

“I thought, ‘Oh, the wreck is accessible,’” says Matthew. “They’ve gone back to it. They can actually see it, and they’ve taken something from it. That’s when I got interested and told Mike.”

From there, the duo began to compile newspaper records on the wreck, a first-hand account from a diary of a Nova Zembla crewmember, and other documents, cobbling together bits of information to create an extremely targeted search area for an expedition.

In August, the pair embarked on a One Ocean Expeditions voyage through the Northwest Passage and Greenland aboard their vessel Akademik Sergey Vavilov. The ship departed on August 30; the next morning at 6am, Matthew, Michael and One Ocean crew members Ted Irniq and Kelson Rounds-McPherson set out in a Zodiac, battling one-and-a-half-metre swells as they made their way toward the search area, a windblown stretch of beach near Buchan Gulf. They had only a short window of time to find evidence of the Nova Zembla.

“We knew that the beachfront was what we were targeting. That was what we had triangulated from those historical documents. Then it became your traditional sit and wait and stare at a SONAR screen for hours,” says Michael.

Armed with satellite imagery of what appeared to be the hull of a ship near the wreck site, the pair first set out to discover the nature of the intriguing shape below the water. Unfortunately, that lead turned cold. “It was a collection of rocks,” Matthew says.

However, using an ROV supplied by DeepTrekker, the team was able to obtain SONAR imagery that revealed some promising shapes, including what appears to be one of the anchors of the ship — straight lines and right angles are indicative of man-made materials, says Michael. But it was on the nearby beach that they discovered the most promising evidence of the wreck. Through binoculars aimed at the shore, Matthew spotted what looked like pieces of wood on the sand, so he deployed a drone and was amazed at what he saw on the monitor. Pieces of spars and large timbers with metal rivets were scattered across the beach. Unfortunately, their drone battery drained in just a few minutes from the cold, so Matthew could only search for a few minutes before he flew it back to the Zodiac with just seconds to spare.

“I reckon this is the cheapest and fastest shipwreck discovery in history,” says Matthew with a laugh.

The discovery of the Nova Zembla offers insight into the little-known social history of the whaling industry. There are very limited accounts of the daily lives of whalers, and particularly the sailors that plied the treacherous waters of the Arctic and contributed to the geographic understanding of the region. For centuries, whaling was an integral part of life in the Arctic and whalers interacted with and, in some cases, integrated into Inuit communities. While the relationship was not always a peaceful one, many whaling companies incorporated Inuit knowledge into their own practices, and later passed that information on to the Royal Navy during their explorations of the Arctic.

“It’s a largely untold part of the story, with most of the attention directed towards the Royal Navy searches for the North West Passage and Franklin.,” says Michael.

Back home in Calgary, the pair will continue to process their SONAR and drone imagery to pinpoint more evidence of the Nova Zembla. They plan to revisit the wreck site in 2019, and hope to partner with local Inuit to conduct further research on the wreck.

“The whole goal of the expedition was to discover if there’s something there or not,” says Michael, “and now we know there’s something there.”

About the Nova Zembla

The Scottish whaling vessel Nova Zembla hit a reef near Buchan Gulf off the east coast of Baffin Bay at 10.20pm, on Thursday, September 18, 1902. Her crew was rescued by fellow whalers, the Diana and Eclipse, and it is from their logbooks that information about the events of that evening have been gleaned. Alongside newspaper testimonies from the crew on their return, these first-hand accounts place the wreck near a remote harbour on the east coast of Baffin Island, in shallow water. Nova Zembla, under new and novice captaincy, struck the reef while running for cover in a storm. She sank fast and the crew had little time to abandon ship. Her valuable cargo of whalebone was rescued from her stores and transferred to the Diana, which revisited the wreck the following year and salvaged her rudder.

 About Matthew Ayre – ARCDoc

Matthew Ayre, whose research at the University of Sunderland revealed the secrets of early 19th century ice fronts that were more advanced around the Arctic than they are today, now continues his work at the Arctic Institute of North America, University of Calgary.

Matthew was offered a Post Doctoral Fellowship at the Institute, based at the University of Calgary in Canada, as a result of his work on the ARCdoc research project, led by Sunderland.

ARCdoc analysed historical logbooks recorded by explorers, whalers and merchants during epic expeditions between 1750 and 1850. The project was created to increase our scientific understanding of climate change in this environmentally important region. The logbooks include famous voyages such as Parry’s polar expedition in HMS Hecla.

Some of the most significant data to emerge from the project has come from painstaking analysis of 60 logbooks belonging to whaling vessels, which contain descriptions of sea ice advancing and retreating every summer, all of which were recorded by whalers who ventured farther north than anyone else.

For his PhD, Matthew mapped what the ice was doing during some of that 100-year period around the David Straits area, and at a time pre-dating the emergence of significant volumes of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. A comparison with satellite data from the last 30 years of this area shows the summer ice was then far more advanced than it is today.

Now considered a leading expert on historical log book analysis, the 30-year-old, from North Tyneside, is continuing his research with historical logbooks as part of the Northern Seas project at the Arctic Institute.

To understand how the data relates to today’s ice cover decline, Matthew had to translate the whaler’s archaic terminology into the first ever sea ice dictionary in standard 21st Century observational vocabulary. To do this he has traced every sea ice definition in UK history from satellite data of the last three decades, to the accounts of renowned Arctic explorer, scientist and Whitby whaler William Scoresby Jnr (1789-1857). Scoresby wrote an account of the Arctic regions and also deciphered some of the log book’s terminology.

Matthew was also able to validate his data and the accuracy of his dictionary on board the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, a research vessel and the US’s only operating polar ice breaker, where he spent five weeks recording what was happening to the ice.