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A mission to unearth the wreck of Nova Zembla

  • Written by  Matthew Ayre
  • Published in Explorers
A mission to unearth the wreck of Nova Zembla
19 May
A single entry in a 118-year-old Arctic whaling logbook diverted the course of Dr Matthew Ayre’s research, taking him from the lignin scents of dusty archives to the perilous waters of the Canadian Arctic

It was March 2018, and I was up to my neck in the surviving ships’ logbooks of the British Arctic whaling trade, painstakingly transcribing the daily environmental observations they contain for my post-doctoral research. These fascinating and rare documents not only provide a veritable cornucopia of past climate information but an amazing window into the lives of those who ventured annually to the icy edges of the known world.

While working on the logbook of the Diana, on its 1902 voyage from Dundee to Baffin Bay, I first read the account that has come to dominate my thoughts ever since: ‘One of the Nova Zembla’s boats came alongside and reported to us that the Nova Zembla was ashore a little to the southward, and that water was up to the “tween decks”.’

My interest was piqued. Nova Zembla, the veteran Dundee whaler had been lost high in the Canadian Arctic, off one of the most remote stretches of the Baffin Island coast. What had happened? Did anyone survive? Is the wreck still there? Could it be found? Could I find it? At the time, I never imagined that this flight of fancy might actually materialise into something. I began to look into it all the same.

Records revealed that in 1902, John Cooney, long standing first mate, inherited the captaincy of the 140ft barque rigged steam whaler Nova Zembla. Six months into his inaugural command the ship was forced to run for shelter during an intense and blinding snowstorm. His years of experience evident, Cooney bore up for a well-known and secure harbour. At 10:20pm 18th September 1902 the crew were startled by the sudden lurch of the ship and painful sound of splintering timbers. Nova Zembla was aground, a mile south of the harbour entrance, 300 yards from shore. Immediately ordering the anchors dropped to reduce weight gave no saviour, the storm had Nova Zembla firmly in its teeth. The masts were the first to go, followed by engines being thrust up through the deck; all hope was lost, Nova Zembla was a total wreck.

By the following morning the crew had managed to launch some of their six whaling boats and make it to shore, with those left onboard the deteriorating hull witnessing their shipmates running up and down the beach to stay warm. A party was sent to pull the two-hour hard row around the rocky peninsular into the harbour to seek assistance from other ships that might have been sheltering the storm. To their relief, fellow Dundee whalers Diana and Eclipse were sat safely at anchor. All 42 men aboard Nova Zembla survived the ordeal, safely returning to Dundee to tell their story.

Nova ZemblaThe discovery of abandoned wood was the first sign that the team were in the right spot
Photo: Robert Kautuk
I sat hunched over a chart with colleague and underwater archaeologist, Dr Mike Moloney, piecing together clues found in the newspaper interviews that followed in the wake of the crew’s return. After correcting for the considerable amount of magnetic variation (nearly 90 degrees!) we had our fix, certain this was Nova Zembla’s final resting place. Furthermore, an anomaly present 300 yards off the beach on a very grainy Google Earth image had us convinced. Was it that easy?

Two months later our application to the Royal Canadian Geographic Society for expedition support was approved, with additional funding from the Arctic Institute of North America. This, however, was no big budget endeavour. We managed to convince a passing cruise ship to stop at our determined location, agreeing to grant us a short seven-hour search window. Unable to afford the sonar equipment usually employed in a such a task, we settled for a fish finder. Complementing our meagre outfit, we purchased a drone and were lent a small remotely operated vehicle (ROV) by Deeptrekker. 

I’ve come to learn to expect delays when working in the Arctic - weather and ice are king. Seventy-two hours after we were meant to board our commandeered cruise ship, I stepped off a hastily arranged plane in the Inuit hamlet of Kugaaruk (Nunavut, Canada), 400 miles east of where we had originally meant to board. The next week saw us transit out of the Northwest passage and into Baffin Bay. While most onboard thought of Franklin, I was finally seeing for myself the landscape I have been viewing through the eyes of the whalers since beginning my PhD studies in 2011.

The British Arctic whaling trade

From the discovery of Svalbard in the 16th century and the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) that plied its surrounding waters, Britain maintained near continual involvement in the Arctic whaling trade up until its cessation in the early 20th century. The bowhead was favoured for its huge blubber reverses, that when rendered down yielded tons of the valuable oil used to light and lubricate the industrial revolution. Without it, the modern world would not be the same. This mercantile whale also formed the mainstay of women’s fashion, with its long plates of baleen (confusingly known as whalebone) forming the necessary supports for once vogue corsets and petticoats. By mid-eighteenth-century Britain had come to dominate Arctic whaling. So profitable could this risky voyage be, at one point every major port in the country sent at least one ship north in search of the black fish. Over exploitation of bowheads around Svalbard saw vessels move to the Davis Straits, eventually penetrating up into Baffin Bay following the wake of John Ross RN in 1818. Dwindling populations and technological advances saw Arctic whaling decline by the mid-nineteenth-century, with only Scottish ports persisting until the onset of the Great War. By the time Arctic whaling finally ceased, Britain had sent over 6,000 voyages to the ‘fishing’ grounds, leaving the world’s longest-lived mammal on the verge of extinction.

1884 Orchison Nova ZemblaAn 1884 portrait of the Nova Zembla by James Orchison

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I saw my first bowhead whale, but no crews scrambled to end this majestic creature in the name of profit and progress. Instead, all watched captivated in awe and wonder. I felt a moment of conflict between my academic research and the realisation that the very whale that swam before me could be old enough to have endured the onslaught that once reigned in its icy waters.

I felt the engines slow at 4am, the swell was heavy and the wind strong. I regretted forgetting to pack my thermals, or any other trousers for that matter! Nerves had rendered any notion of packing clothing apparently unimportant. I made do with my jeans and headed out to join Mike on deck.

Aerial view of beach where Nova Zembla liesAerial view of the beach where Nova Zembla lies 
Photo: Robert Kautuk

The anomaly on Google Earth was just that, our hopes dashed in the first hour of this improbable search. We had to be in the right place though, the historical evidence was so strong and now we were there, the accounts of the crew all fitted. We could see the boulder strewn reef, the beach a mile south of the natural harbour, the rocky promontory that protected its entrance. This was the right place. Nova Zembla was here, somewhere.

Six hours of running grids over the reef in an exposed Zodiac left me near hypothermic, but suddenly we spotted something that looked suspiciously like wood on the beach. Driftwood, in this part of the Arctic, is extremely rare. Warmed with anticipation we launched the drone but immediately, it was clear that this was no driftwood. Instead, a piece of mast with iron fittings became apparent, and planking with trunnels. One piece was still covered by paint, another was burnt. Yet another definitely looked like a block and tackle, a yardarm, a rib timber with iron rivets. Clearly wreckage from a sizeable sailing ship.

It was time to leave, our seven hours up. We managed to grab a few moments to launch the ROV, estimating ourselves 300 yards offshore from the wreckage, before heading back to the cruise ship. On reviewing the footage, we cought a glimpse of an anchor and chain lying on the seafloor. This was the wreck site of Nova Zembla.

A year later I’m sat in Canada’s most northernly Tim Hortons, catching up with friends in Pond Inlet, Baffin Island. It’s great to be back in the Arctic and this time I have clothing for every eventuality. Nova Zembla, the first identified historical British whaling wreck to be discovered in the Canadian Arctic has consumed my thoughts for the past twelve months. But our 2018 search only found a handful of evidence. It’s time to return.

Moloney making notes on wreckage of Nova ZemblaDr. Mike Moloney makes notes on wreckage of Nova Zembla
Photo: Robert Kauduk
After the customary delays we board the Government of Nunavut’s fisheries research vessel Nuliajuk, a stout little 65ft converted crab trawler. Captain Bob and his three crew, all Newfoundland crab fisherman are the epitome of Canadian friendliness and hospitality, though their accent is impenetrable. Our 20-hour transit down to the wreck has the veneer of a strange dream - I sit in the galley watching a VHS of The Shining for the third time in a row, fighting off the nausea of seasickness.

But when we arrive, we are in luck. The eight polar bears seen on the surrounding tundra are not on the beach as we approach and I can barely contain my excitement nor believe our luck. The weather is perfect, the sun shining and the sea calm. From the moment we step onto the beach it is clear that we missed much in 2018. The entire two kilometres of beach is awash with wreckage.

Several ornately carved pieces are just lying on the sand - we later confirm through an 1884 painting of Nova Zembla that these came from the bow of the ship. Rib timbers from the immense hull are also everywhere, long iron rivets sticking out of them. We find masts and yard arms, the remains of a clinker-built whaling boat, yellow and green paint still visible on the weathered planks. Hundreds of individual pieces, lying untouched for 117 years. As we make our way down the beach, we find a 60ft section of hull poking out of the sand, immediately inshore from where we first sighted the anchor in 2018.

A short 48 hours later, as we sail into the forecasted storm, not even the 15ft swell can dull my feeling of elation and disbelief. It was a mere handful of newspapers, potentially having once adorned a Dundonian fish supper, that lead me here; Nova Zembla, the first identified historical British whaling wreck to be discovered in the Canadian Arctic.

Returning from these recent discoveries and in the midst of planning an ambitious archaeological investigation of the wreck for summer 2020, I go back to my logbook climate research. During the transcribing of an 1899 diary, when in the harbour that would allude Cooney three years later, I read: ‘examined the wreck of the Eagle, you can see her engines plainly under the water’.

Dr Matthew Ayre Dr Matthew Ayre is a historical climatologist
Photo: Robert Kautuk

Dr. Matthew Ayre FRCGS is a historical climatologist at the Arctic Institute of North America, University of Calgary, Canada. Originally from Newcastle, he obtained his PhD in 2016 from the University of Sunderland and continues to work on the history of the British Arctic whaling trade.

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