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
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.