Discovery of Long-Lost Whaling Vessel

For the third time in history, One Ocean Expeditions has contributed to the discovery of a long-lost vessel in collaboration with the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS). The successful find of the HMS Erebus in 2014 marked a momentous breakthrough in the exploration of the Canadian Arctic. Subsequently the HMS Terror was found 2 years later. A new discovery occurred on August 29th, 2018, with the location of the Nova Zembla by Dr. Matthew Ayre and Dr. Michael Moloney in Buchan Fjord, while traveling onboard our ‘Classic Northwest Passage and Greenland’ voyage on Akademik Sergey Vavilov.

Badge presented to all passengers onboard.

The Scottish whaling ship was wrecked in a fjord off Baffin Bay in 1902 and allegedly sank quickly. The crew had little time to abandon ship but were rescued by fellow whalers on the ships Diana and Eclipse.

We had the opportunity to sit and chat with the pair of researchers while onboard the Vavilov to find out more about what led them to seek the Nova Zembla and how the discovery was accomplished.

Dr. Matthew Ayre, can you tell us a little bit about your interest in whaling logbooks and what your research entails?

Matthew: My interest in whaling logbooks started when I began my PhD in 2011 at the University of Sunderland. I was invited to work on the Arctic project and that was a 3-year research project to investigate the use of arctic logbooks in climate reconstruction. As part of this project, I started to look at surviving British Arctic whaling logbooks and discovered that they contained a huge wealth of information regarding weather, ice, wildlife and community interactions. Once I finished, I was told about a post-doctoral position opening up in Calgary. This was part of  the Northern Seas project, so I applied and  was successful. I came over to Canada in January 2017 and decided that I wanted to continue my PhD research.

What initially sparked your interest in the Nova Zembla and why did you choose that particular shipwreck?

Matthew: Initially, when I was looking into the logbook of the Diana (another Scottish whaling vessel) from 1902, it reported that the Nova Zembla had wrecked in unusually shallow water. This was very interesting, but wasn’t yet the moment of revelation. I transcribe logbooks in chronological order and as I continued to read further accounts about the Diana from 1903, I discovered that the crew revisited the Nova Zembla wreck, described the reef it was on and mentioned that they were able to salvage the rudder. This meant that the wreck was accessible! That’s the moment that my interest was truly peaked, after reading this second account. This is also when I realised that there was a lot of evidence to suggest where the wreck might actually be today.

Dr. Michael Moloney, what is your academic background and how did you end up getting involved in the Nova Zembla project?

Michael: My academic background is as an underwater archaeologist. I did my masters in maritime archaeology at the University of Southampton and my PhD in archaeology at the University of Calgary, with my dissertation examining royal navy wrecks. Matt approached me when he found out about the existence of the wreck of the Nova Zembla in the logbooks and asked what I thought about the wreck site and whether it would be a possible project to pursue. I was very excited based on the description of the wreck, its accessibility and the likelihood of having a positive identification.

What sort of research have you both been conducting over the last six months relative to this search?

Matthew: After we found these two accounts in the Diana logbooks, I started to look online at the British library newspaper archives, which has been digitized with many historical newspapers across the UK. At this time it was very late on in the Arctic whaling trade and the ships sailing from Dundee were famous during this era. There was often a large fanfare when they left and returned and because of this, I assumed that there would be some mention in the archival newspaper records if one of them hadn’t made it back. I found quite a number of newspaper reports, some with brief descriptions describing the wreck, others with transcripts and diaries from the crew, which gave more and more information about the potential location of the wreck.

Michael: Matt compiled all of the relevant archival data and then I worked with a national topographic survey map, a hydrographic chart and Landsat imagery to try to triangulate a location based on the sailors’ accounts. At this point, we felt we were at a place that satisfied most of the variables.

What useful information can be found from the shipwreck and how can the logbooks be used in climate science?

Matthew: The surviving documents from whaling voyages have historical value and the environmental observations they contain are now being used to establish much needed climatological baselines from the Arctic regions, improving the accuracy of global climate prediction models. Ground-truthing of these documents will enhance the reliability of the data and facilitate greater accuracy in these models. In addition, as the exact date and time of the wrecking is noted in first-hand accounts, the wreck of the Nova Zembla will provide a benchmark for understanding the timeline of ecological growth in the region, which will be increasingly useful as the effects of climate change continue to impact the region.

Michael: For this wreck, the history of whaling in the Canadian Arctic is largely documented in journals and logbooks that don’t necessarily get interred into traditional archival resources and so there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of the whaling trade. This wreck can serve to help archaeological ground-truth the existing archival documents and add to gaps in our knowledge through the material record. Any information that can be gleaned from this that can help increase the understanding of the data from the whaling logbooks will assist climate change research.

Matthew: For example, at this time whaling vessels were using instrumentation (thermometers and barometers) to measure temperature and pressure and if we know where they were on the ship or what types of instruments they were, that can be used to calibrate the recordings that have survived in the logbooks.

Michael: The wreck can also serve as a point through which we can further investigate the social history of life aboard these ships, which is currently largely anecdotal.

How did the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and One Ocean Expeditions become involved?

Michael: We were introduced to John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) by a colleague and he in-turn introduced us to Catherine Lawton, General Manager of One Ocean Expeditions (OOE). The four of us were able to have a brief meeting in Calgary and we introduced them to the idea and pitched our reasoning behind where the shipwreck could be and how they might be able to help. Catherine suggested she could assist in getting us to the shipwreck site on the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, if we travelled as the vessel’s scientists-in-residence. RCGS were key in providing much needed additional budget for the project, which covered transportation to the ship and additional research equipment.

Why was conducting this research from an expedition cruise ship of particular interest?

Michael: The Arctic Institute of North America has a mandate to disseminate Arctic research to the public and both Matt and I also personally feel that it is the responsibility of research workers to meaningfully disseminate our research to the public whenever possible. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to conduct this project from an OOE expedition vessel, to not only talk about our research with the public, but to have them actually witness science in action.

Matthew: We were really excited to conduct this research in front of the OOE guests and their enthusiasm and passion made all the hard work and many hours sat in the cold Arctic air worth it.

Dr Michael Molony talking about the equipment they were using in the search

Can you tell us a bit about what you actually found?

Matthew: Our initial survey has identified shipwreck remains with features contemporary with that of the Nova Zembla. Further work is needed to get a positive ID, however this initial investigation gives us great confidence that our initial hypotheses regarding the location are correct and given the lack of archival evidence for other wrecks in the area, we feel strongly that these materials must be related to the wreck of the Nova Zembla.

Michael: The full account of the expedition will be published in an upcoming issue of Canadian Geographic and the results of the study will be submitted to the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

What happens next?

Matthew: We believe we have enough evidence to warrant further investigation of this site. We also hope to partner with Ocean Wise and the Ikaarvik programme to engage Inuit youth in future research on the site.

We would also like to take this opportunity to thank all of our sponsors, in particular, One Ocean Expeditions for their support and to the expedition crew and passengers of the Akademik Sergey Vavilov. Also, special thanks to Ted Irniq (OOE guide) and Kelson Rounds-McPherson (OOE staff) for their involvement during the search as field personnel, their contribution to science and comradery in the cold.