Shipwreck Off Patagonia is Likely Long Lost Whaler

By Eco Magazine.

Scientists investigating the remains of an old wooden ship off the cold, windy coast of far southern Argentina say it almost certainly is the Dolphin, a globe-trotting whaling ship from Warren, R.I., lost in 1859.

Archaeologists have spent years researching the ship’s origin without making a definitive identification, but a new analysis of tree rings in its timbers has provided perhaps the most compelling evidence yet. A team of Argentinian and American researchers just published the findings in the journal Dendrochronologia.

“I cannot say with a hundred percent certainty, but analysis of the tree rings indicates it is very likely that this is the ship,” said lead author Ignacio Mundo of Argentina’s Laboratory of Dendrochronology and Environmental History, IANIGLA-CONICET. Mundo and scientists at the Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory used a huge database of rings from old North American trees to show that the timbers were felled in New England and the southeastern United States just before the ship was built in 1850. Other evidence includes artifacts found near the wreck, and historical accounts from Argentina and Rhode Island. This appears to be the first time tree-ring science has been applied to identify a South American shipwreck.

“It’s fascinating that people built this ship in a New England town so long ago, and it turned up on the other side of the world,” said Columbia tree-ring scientist Mukund Rao, a coauthor of the study.

New England was a major player in the global whaling trade from the mid-1770s until the 1850s, when oil extracted from blubber was popular for lighting and lubrication, and whale bone was used in many small household items now made of plastic. Hundreds of Yankee ships roamed remote regions, often on voyages that lasted for years. The industry faded in the 1860s after whale populations were decimated, and petroleum came in.

According to an unpublished manuscript by local Warren historian Walter Nebiker, the Dolphin was built between August and October 1850, of oak and other woods. Normally trees were felled in cold weather a year or so before a ship was built, which in this case would have been between late 1849 and February 1850. Measuring 111 feet long and weighing 325 tons, the Dolphin was launched Nov. 16, 1850. Nebiker described her as “probably the fastest square-rigger of all time.”

The ship ranged across the Atlantic and Indian oceans for nearly two and half years, returning laden with oil in March 1853. Later trips took her to the Azores and around the Horn of Africa to the Seychelles, Zanzibar and Australia. Her last voyage started from Warren on Oct. 2, 1858. The ship ended up off Patagonia a few months later. A letter to the owners from her master, a Captain Norrie, said she was destroyed when she “lay upon the rocks in the southwestern part of New Bay” — an apparent reference to the Golfo Nuevo, one of Patagonia’s few good natural harbors, where whalers were known to put in. The crew would have sailed some 10,000 miles to get there. Whalers generally carried crews of 300 or 400, but only 42 men were rescued, so unless many of the crew were already ashore when she sank, the loss of life must have been staggering.

There was no permanent European settlement in the Golfo Nuevo until 1865, when Welsh immigrants started what is now the small city of Puerto Madryn. Local tradition has it that early settlers scavenged material from one or more shipwrecks, but it is unclear whether this was from the Dolphin or some other ill-fated ship or ships.

In 2004, shifting sediments revealed the partial remains of a wooden vessel in the intertidal flats just off Puerto Madryn. Locals knew it was there, but scientists had not. In 2006 and 2007, marine archaeologists including Cristian Murray of Argentina’s National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Studies excavated the remains during low tides. They also documented several other other wrecks nearby.