THE HUNT FOR NOVA ZEMBLA

How a Royal Cana­dian Geo­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety flag ex­pe­di­tion made the first-ever dis­cov­ery of a Bri­tish whal­ing ship­wreck in the High Arc­tic — and shed light on a lit­tle-un­der­stood chap­ter of Canada’s past

Canadian Geographic - - CONTENTS - By Michela Rosano

How a Royal Cana­dian Geo­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety flag ex­pe­di­tion made the first-ever dis­cov­ery of a whal­ing ship­wreck in the High Arc­tic — and shed light on a lit­tle-un­der­stood chap­ter of Canada’s past

AT 10:20 P.M. on Sept. 18, 1902, the crew of the Scot­tish whal­ing ves­sel Nova Zembla were drawn up to the main deck by what sounded like ear-split­ting thun­der. It wasn’t the Arc­tic storm they had been try­ing to avoid for three days off the north­east coast of Baf­fin Is­land, but the sound of the wood hull of their 255tonne steamship rak­ing across a rocky reef in a shal­low fiord of Buchan Gulf. Capt. Cooney, a sea­soned whaler with 10 years of ex­pe­ri­ence in the Arc­tic, com­manded his 42-man crew to drop both an­chors in a des­per­ate at­tempt to lighten the load and gain buoy­ancy. It was no use. Wa­ter spilled freely into the ship up to the ’tween deck (be­tween the main and lower decks) as the force of the waves snapped the ship’s masts and pushed its coalpow­ered boil­ers through the floor­boards. Some crew aban­doned ship, row­ing to the sandy shore just 275 me­tres away, while oth­ers stayed on board to try to sal­vage what they could from the ves­sel snagged on the reef. Af­ter a long, frigid night, Nova Zembla’s crew and its valu­able cargo of baleen — the flex­i­ble bony sieve in the mouths of some whale species — were res­cued by fel­low Scot­tish whal­ing ships, Diana and Eclipse. Like many other Arc­tic whal­ing wreck­ages, Nova Zembla was aban­doned, flat­tened by a cen­tury of crash­ing waves and even­tu­ally for­got­ten. That is, un­til Aug. 31, 2018, when Michael Moloney and Matthew Ayre, post-doc­toral fel­lows f rom the Univer­sity of Cal­gary’s Arc­tic In­sti­tute of North Amer­ica, un­cov­ered ev­i­dence of the wreck­age on Baf­fin Is­land, Nu­navut, dur­ing an ex­pe­di­tion funded by The Royal Cana­dian Geo­graph­i­cal So­ci­ety. Their find marks the first Bri­tish whal­ing ves­sel ever un­cov­ered in the High Arc­tic, and stands to of­fer sig­nif­i­cant his­tor­i­cal in­sight into life in an in­dus­try that dom­i­nated Canada’s north­ern wa­ters for cen­turies.

THE FIRST BRI­TISH whalers were lured to the Cana­dian Arc­tic in 1818-19, when ex­plor­ers John Ross and Wil­liam Ed­ward Parry be­came the first Euro­peans to dis­cover Lan­caster Sound, and shortly af­ter, the in­dus­try was flour­ish­ing. Ev­ery year from April to Au­gust, mas­sive whal­ing ships fol­lowed bow­head whales on their sum­mer mi­gra­tion up the west coast of Green­land, across Baf­fin Bay and along the eastern shore of Baf­fin Is­land. When whalers reached south­east Baf­fin’s Cape Dyer, a turn­around point to set course for home be­fore win­ter pack ice set­tled in, their cargo holds were of­ten stuffed with tonnes of baleen and oil ren­dered from the mam­mals’ thick blub­ber. Baleen, called whale­bone, was used in ev­ery­thing from corsets and hoop skirts to rid­ing crops, fish­ing rods and win­dow blinds, while the oil was burned in lamps and used as a lu­bri­cant. By 1840, the bow­head pop­u­la­tion of Davis Strait and Baf­fin Bay was in de­cline, and many whalers sought new, pro­duc­tive hunt­ing grounds farther south in Cum­ber­land Sound. By the time Nova Zembla wrecked in 1902, she was one of just a hand­ful of large Scot­tish whal­ing ves­sels still ply­ing the icy wa­ters along Baf­fin Is­land’s coast. “There’s a lot we don’t know about the life of the whale man, and Nova Zembla is one piece of the puz­zle,” says Kenn Harper, north­ern his­to­rian and au­thor of In Those Days: Tales of Arc­tic Whal­ing. In March 2018, Ayre was con­duct­ing cli­ma­to­log­i­cal re­search at the Arc­tic In­sti­tute (where he mines his­tor­i­cal ship­ping doc­u­ments for base­line in­for­ma­tion on north­ern ice and wind con­di­tions) when he came across a lone di­ary en­try doc­u­ment­ing life aboard an Arc­tic whal­ing ship. It was a type-writ­ten ver­sion of a jour­nal penned by a sailor aboard Diana in 1903, a year af­ter Nova Zembla wrecked, and it ex­plained how Diana re­turned to Nova Zembla’s wreck site to sal­vage equip­ment, in­clud­ing the rud­der. That doc­u­ment sparked ev­ery­thing for Ayre and Moloney. “I thought, ‘Oh, the wreck is ac­ces­si­ble,’” says Ayre. “They went back to it. They could ac­tu­ally see it, and they took some­thing from it.” From there, the duo be­gan to com­pile news­pa­per records on the wreck, as well as in­for­ma­tion from Diana’s log­book, and cob­bled to­gether bits of in­for­ma­tion to cre­ate a tar­geted fivesquare-kilo­me­tre search area for an ex­pe­di­tion to Baf­fin Is­land. They just needed to find a way there.

Like many other Arc­tic whal­ing wreck­ages, Nova Zembla was aban­doned, flat­tened by a cen­tury of crash­ing waves and even­tu­ally for­got­ten.

AT 6 A.M. ON AUG. 31 off the coast of Baf­fin Is­land, Ayre and Moloney loaded a Zo­diac with their cam­era, a drone, a re­mote-op­er­ated un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cle and a side-scan sonar. They had hitched a ride aboard One Ocean Ex­pe­di­tions’ cruise and re­search ves­sel Akademik Sergey Vav­ilov through the North­west Pas­sage and Green­land, and crew mem­bers Ted Irniq and Kel­son Rounds-Mcpher­son helped guide them to their search area by Zo­diac. The four men skipped over 1½-me­tre swells to­ward a wind­blown stretch of beach near Buchan Gulf. In the un­pre­dictable weather of Baf­fin Bay, they had only eight hours to put their his­tor­i­cal sleuthing to the test and find ev­i­dence of Nova Zembla be­fore the Akademik Sergey Vav­ilov was sched­uled to de­part. “We knew the beach­front was what we should be tar­get­ing,” says Moloney. “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.” Armed with satel­lite im­agery of what ap­peared to be the hull of a ship near the wreck site, Ayre and Moloney first set out to dis­cover the na­ture of the in­trigu­ing shape be­low the wa­ter. But that lead turned cold — it was just a col­lec­tion of rocks. Sonar de­ployed on their ROV re­vealed some promis­ing shapes un­der­wa­ter, how­ever, in­clud­ing an an­chor (straight lines and right an­gles are in­dica­tive of man­made ma­te­ri­als, says Moloney). But it was on the nearby beach that they dis­cov­ered the most promis­ing ev­i­dence of the wreck. Through binoc­u­lars, Ayre spot­ted what looked like pieces of wood on the sand. Be­cause their re­search per­mit did not al­low them to set foot on land, he sent their drone to get a bet­ter look and was amazed at what he saw on the mon­i­tor. Pieces of spars and large tim­bers with metal riv­ets were scat­tered across the oth­er­wise fea­ture­less ex­panse, a star­tling dis­cov­ery made with just min­utes to spare in their nar­row search win­dow. “I reckon this was the cheapest and fastest ship­wreck dis­cov­ery in his­tory,” says Ayre with a laugh. “The whole goal of the ex­pe­di­tion was to dis­cover if there’s some­thing there,” says Moloney. “And now we’re cer­tain there is.”

De­bris from the Nova Zembla wreck­age found by Matthew Ayre and Michael Moloney on a Baf­fin Is­land beach.

Clock­wise from above: A rare photo of the Nova Zembla be­fore it wrecked in 1902; the Akademik Sergey Vav­ilov near Sval­bard in June 2016; Michael Moloney low­ers a re­mote-op­er­ated ve­hi­cle into Baf­fin Bay; (left to right) Moloney, Kel­son Round­sMcpher­son and Ted Irniq (both from One Ocean Ex­pe­di­tions), and Matthew Ayre.

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