FAIRBANKS, Alaska--The West Coast and Polar Regions Undersea Research Center is providing funding for a joint effort with NASA, Santa Clara University and the United States Coast Guard to locate and evaluate the condition of whaling vessels lost off the north coast of Alaska, near the village of Wainwright, in 1871. The expedition represents the first joint research project by the West Coast and Polar Regions Undersea Research Center, NASA and the Coast Guard. An initiative is underway that is expected to result in future collaborative projects by the three agencies in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
A whaling fleet of nearly 40 vessels from New Bedford, Massachusetts, was caught in a violent storm off Icy Cape, Alaska, in 1871. More than 30 whaling ships became trapped in the ice and eventually sunk. Crews were able to walk across the ice to shore, where some found refuge in Alaskan Native villages for the winter. Other crewmembers returned to Hawaii aboard the few remaining undamaged ships.
Operations to find and assess the sunken whaling ships will be based aboard the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star. Side-scan sonar, which has a sensor towed by a ship, will be used to locate the position of the sunken vessels on the seafloor. A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) provided by NASA and equipped with stereoscopic video cameras and control mechanisms as utilized on the Mars lander will be deployed to document the condition of the whaling ships.
The West Coast and Polar Regions Center, based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is one of six regional National Undersea Research Program centers of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Other organizations participating in the Icy Cape project include the U.S. Navy, the Minerals Management Service, the National Park Service and the Alaska State Historic Preservation Office.