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1,000 Fathoms Down

In the Gulf of Mexico, archaeologists believe they have identified a nineteenth-century whaling ship crewed by a diverse group of New Englanders

September/October 2022

Whaleship PrintThe first few weeks of May 1836 were pleasant ones for the whaling brig Industry. Based in Westport, Massachusetts, the two-masted, 64-foot-long ship had been built in 1815 and launched the next year. Now, two decades into her career, Industry and her crew of 15 men had been out for just over a year hunting sperm whales as far east as the Azores and as far south as the Caribbean. They had built up a store of several hundred barrels of sperm whale oil and were making their way back home when they detoured into the Gulf of Mexico in hopes of topping up their prized cargo.


Before the widespread availability of petroleum, sperm whale oil was a valuable commodity. It burned clearly and brightly without smoking, making it ideal for illuminating homes and lighthouses. It was a fine lubricant even at very high temperatures, and was used to oil timepieces, scientific instruments, and industrial machinery. In addition, spermaceti, a waxy substance harvested from sperm whales’ heads, was used to produce the brightest, cleanest-burning candles. And ambergris, an odoriferous material found in some sperm whales’ bowels, was coveted as an ingredient in perfume and worth its weight in gold. “If you were good at killing whales, then you had the ability to make cash,” says Michael Dyer, curator of maritime history at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. “Anyone who participated in the whaling trade in the early nineteenth century could stand to do quite well at it.”


Whaleship MapIn the Gulf, Industry enjoyed a stretch of fine weather with steady winds and encountered a fellow Westport whaling brig, Elizabeth. The two ships “mated,” in the nautical parlance, and sailed in close proximity for several days. They were a few miles apart when a vicious squall set in on the evening of May 26. “The thunder rolled heavily and in the most terrific tones,” reports a June 20, 1836, article in the New-Bedford Gazette & Courier. “The lightnings flashed vividly and constantly in every direction during the night.”


Industry got the worst of it. She was knocked on her side by the wind and waves, and nearly capsized. Both her masts snapped, and all but one of the small boats the crew used to pursue whales were washed away. The only thing keeping her afloat was the buoyancy provided by her precious store of sperm whale oil. The crew piled into their one remaining boat and rowed to Elizabeth, which took them in and sailed back to Westport. Around a week later, a Nantucket-based whaler named Harmony came upon the abandoned Industry and salvaged 230 of her 310 barrels of oil, along with valuable equipment including parts of her sails and rigging, her anchor cable, and at least one of her anchors. No longer buoyed by her full store of oil, Industry slipped under the water and began to drift to the seafloor. Of some 214 whaling ships known to have worked in the Gulf of Mexico between 1788 and 1878, Industry is the only one known to have sunk there.


During a 2011 sonar survey of a stretch of the Gulf of Mexico slated for petroleum exploration, what appeared to be a shipwreck was detected around 70 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi River and reported to the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). Six years later, a test of an autonomous underwater vehicle captured images of the wreck, which lies 6,000 feet below the surface. The images showed features—in particular, what appeared to be a tryworks, or hearth used to render whale blubber into oil, and anchors of a style dating to the late eighteenth to early nineteenth century—that suggested the wreck might be that of a whaling vessel from the early nineteenth century. In February 2022, a team led by marine archaeologists James Delgado and Michael Brennan of the archaeological firm SEARCH and Scott Sorset of BOEM monitored footage from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration remotely operated vehicle (ROV) as it spent several hours thoroughly documenting the wreck.

Whaleship Cuffe Sillo Intro
A Maritime Magnate

Industry Overseas Highway
Passage to Freedom