Whaling ship

  • Wrecked whaling vessel that plied Gulf in 1800s discovered near mouth of Mississippi River

    • MAR 23, 2022 - 7:00 AM

    Industry wreck


    industry manifest

    An 1828 logbook at the New Bedford Whaling Museum shows William Cuffe on the Industry's crew list as navigator.

    The only known shipwreck of a whaling vessel that once plied the Gulf of Mexico has been discovered near the mouth of the Mississippi River, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association announced.

    The federal agency partnered with the private archaeological firm SEARCH and the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to discover the 207-year-old whaling brig, christened Industry. The vessel was staffed primarily by free Black and indigenous crew members, who faced a difficult decision when the ship foundered: the prospect of being jailed or possibly enslaved if they rowed to the nearest port, or being stranded at sea.

    "It has a very powerful story of injustice that needs to be told," said James Delgado, a vice president at SEARCH. "Whalers avoided the Gulf and some of the other Southern ports for this reason, so they faced a very difficult decision."

    The firm and BOEM had suspected they might have discovered the Industry when they found a wreck 72 nautical miles south of the Mississippi river’s mouth and 6,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf. A NOAA team set out on the agency's ship, the Okeanos Explorer, on Feb. 25 to confirm that the wreck was indeed the Industry, which experts believe is the only whaling vessel to have sunk in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Back in 2009 and again in 2017, BOEM staff saw what was, at the time, an unidentified shipwreck on their surveys using sonar. But they didn’t have the means to investigate it.

    The federal agency and SEARCH are working on a project to register 19th century shipwrecks in the National Register for Historic Places. After studies of whaling logbooks were published in 2011, investigators began suspecting that the wreck at the bottom of the Gulf was in fact the Industry. Video shot by the explorers shows the "try pots" -- vessels used to render oil from whales -- on the seafloor, alongside other detritus from the sunken boat, such as an anchor and bricks used for ballast.

    When NOAA wanted to test the remotely operated vehicle attached to the Explorer, it used the target site BOEM and SEARCH supplied. The technology aboard the vessel allowed the team to consult experts on land about what they were seeing.

    "We had this unknown target and found what was basically a treasure trove of history," NOAA Ocean Exploration Director Jeremy Weirich said. "There's a lot of people working in the Gulf. But you'd be surprised how much is unexplored down there."

    The Industry was built in 1815, and was lost at sea on May 26, 1836 after setting out from Westport, Massachusetts. While the crew was hunting whales in the Gulf of Mexico, a storm caused the ship's primary mast to break. Of 241 American ships that took documented whaling forays into the Gulf of Mexico, the Industry was the only one known to have wrecked, out of roughly 16,000 voyages.

    The Gulf was a breeding site for sperm whales, which produced the most valuable kind of whale oil. Whale oil was a huge commodity in its day, used mostly for lighting fixtures, especially in Europe, and as a lubricant for watches and machinery, according to Judith Lund, a whaling historian.

    "It was like shooting whales in a barrel," Lund said. "They were all there in a fairly small area, the mothers nursing their children."

    Westport, Massachusetts, was where nearly a third of American whaling voyages began in the heyday of whaling, the era of "Moby Dick." The brig Elizabeth, which also departed from Westport, rescued the Industry’s crew members after the vessel lost its mast, according to research conducted by Robin Winters, a librarian at the Westport Free Public Library.

    Later, the brig Harmony came across the abandoned Industry, which was still afloat due to the buoyancy of its whale-oil barrels. The Harmony's crew members took the abandoned barrels, leaving the Industry to sink, likely within the next day or two, at what was its last known location.

    Descendants of the captain of the Industry, Paul Cuffe, have survived to this day.

    "The news of this discovery is exciting," said Carl J. Cruz, a New Bedford-based independent historian and a descendant of the Cuffe family. "It allows us to explore the early relationships of the men who worked on these ships, which is a lesson for us today as we deal with diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace."