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Two Canadian researchers have found evidence of a Scottish whaling wreck in the High Arctic, thought to be the first discovery of its kind in the world. Michael Moloney and Mathew Ayre, post-doctoral fellows with the University of Calgary’s Arctic Institute of North America, made the find last week. The wreckage is from Nova Zembla, a whaling vessel that sank in a fjord near Baffin Bay in September 1902. The discovery is significant because the British fleet lost over 200 vessels and none have ever been found until now.

“Most Canadians are not aware of the important role that whaling played in opening up the Canadian Arctic,” says Ayre. “These sailors formed strong partnerships with the Inuit to learn how to navigate Arctic waters for close to 300 years.” The knowledge gained from each whaling trip became extremely helpful to subsequent voyages of the Britain’sRoyal Navy in their quest to explore the planet’s polar regions and discover the Northwest Passage.

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“This is a previously unidentified archaeological site, and the first High Arctic whaling ship ever discovered,” says John Geiger, Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. “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.”

The team that made the discovery relied on drone footage and sonar imaging. Working off One Ocean Expedition’s Akademik Sergey Vavilov ship, they deployed a remote-operated underwater vehicle in a targeted five-square-kilometre search area, which they had narrowed in on through months of research. The pair still needs to further study the sonar imagery to examine 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. Moloney and Ayer plan on resuming their research next year and will work with local Inuit communities to learn more about the history of Nova Zembla.

“Grassroots underwater archeology on a budget takes time,” says Moloney. “This will be a multi-year project that helps Canadians learn more about our maritime history.”

The Search for Nova Zembla expedition was supported by the Expeditions Program of the Royal Canadian Geographical SocietyOne Ocean ExpeditionsMountain Equipment Co-opUniversity of Calgary’s Arctic Institute of North AmericaDeep Trekker: Underwater Remote Operated Vehicles & Drones, and Lens Lenders.