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How An 1871 Disaster Helped To End America's Whaling Dynasty


Now some news from 1871 and a whaling expedition that headed into Arctic waters too close to winter. Thirty-three ships got trapped in the ice. Well, now 145 years later archaeologists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say they have discovered the hulls of two of those lost ships. They're on the seafloor off the coast of Alaska. To understand how they got there, we reached Peter Nichols. He's author of the book "Oil And Ice," and he remembers a time when people got their oil from whales.

PETER NICHOLS: Whale oil was used for everything. It was the lubrication for machines. It was lighting. It was very very close to what petroleum oil is today.

GREENE: Well, so tell me about these doomed ships and who was on board them.

NICHOLS: Well, this was sort of the dwindling end of the world's whaling fleet. It was like the last gasp of the first oil business. By 1871, when these ships were all up in Alaska - they were all there because that's where all of the whales were. And when the ice began to retreat from the Alaskan shore, the whales then followed this little channel and the ships followed them, too. And 1,200 people were on these 33 ships.

GREENE: And were there - there were families on board these boats as well?

NICHOLS: Yeah, a whale ship captain or wailers typically would go off on voyages that lasted three to five years. And whaling captains who might have a 40-year career often spend no more than, say, five years at home in total. So a lot of wives and their children went on these voyages around the world. And the whale ships often moved in company with other whale ships. So on Sundays they'd have a church service on board one or other of these ships, and the women would get together, and they'd all be rowed over to each other ships to talk and - as the men would, too. So they moved in these flotillas around the world following the whales.

GREENE: So this whole community on board ships gets trapped in this channel - what happens? Did people survive?

NICHOLS: Amazingly, everybody survived. What happened was the weather turned. The wind blew from the sea, and it blew the ice onto this channel. And the ships were all pushed up against the shore by the ice, and the ships began to be destroyed by the ice. And at that point they thought how are we going to get 1,200 men, women and children out of here? So they took to their whale boats, these little peapods from classic Arctic whaling illustrations. And they rode down the coast - sometimes there was so little water that they had to drag them over the ice - all these people until they got far enough south that they were into open water. And there were seven whale ships that were not trapped, and they all made it.

GREENE: That's extraordinary. You have 1,200 people marching across the ice dragging little boats, I mean, did it have a big impact on the industry in 1871?

NICHOLS: It actually finished it off. Petroleum had been found in 1859. Whale ships did go out afterwards but in one year, 1871, this disaster wiped them all out.

GREENE: But whaling remained an enterprise, I mean, through - you know, into the 20th century.

NICHOLS: Yes, it did. But the world didn't turn on it as it had in the 19th century. And actually I was sailing across the Atlantic on a little leaky wooden boat in 1971, and I stopped in the Azores.

GREENE: Those are - those are Portuguese islands sort of way off in the Atlantic - right?

NICHOLS: They're Portuguese islands. And those people there were still practicing whaling in little open peapod boats along the traditional model. And while I was there a great shout went up - a bell rang one day, and these people dropped their tools in the field. They all ran down to the beach and jumped in these whale boats and went after Sperm whales that I could see spouting. They paddled out there and spent hours chasing these whales and harpooned them by hand.

GREENE: Well, Peter, it's been really cool hearing about all of this. Thank you so much for talking to us.

NICHOLS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Peter Nichols, he's author of the book "Oil And Ice." This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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