Friday, June 18, 2010

Red Bay Ship

Way back when in history, the Basques chased whales all over the Atlantic Ocean, and long before Chris Columbus and even John Cabot made their famous trips to the new world, the Iberian whalers built settlements at Red Bay, Labrador. The reason for living in such a black fly and mosquito infested place? Well, there was lots of wood to put under cooking pots to render down whale blubber into whale oil, and lots of privacy. Especially privacy, since whale oil was a VERY valuable material. Also, it was on a migratory route for whales, the place where the gulf stream meets up with the Labrador current, creating a food supply second to none for shell fish in the world. And whales eat shell fish, so there were lots of whales. The heyday for whale hunting was during the 16th century, and thousands of whales were killed and rendered down into oil.
The basques hunted whales in a manner which remained unchanged for centuries...a shallop (rowboat for about 7 men) went out to the whale, and stabbed it with a harboon. The whale would take off, dragging the row boat in what was referred to much later as a "Nantucket sleigh ride". The whale could not sound (dive deep) because the water was comparatively shallow here. If he had been able to, he would have dragged the whalers to Davy Jones' Locker. As it was, the poor animal bled to death, and floated to the surface.
In the Parks Canada building, there is a room set aside that is like a museum. (Actually it resembles nothing so much as a self-congratulation room, and is about the same size as the Arthur Evans Room in the Ashmolean Museum in England, but doesnt contain nearly as much stuff) In there you find the paintings, several artifacts from the wreck, some models. The models pictured here are from the San Juan, a ship which came to grief in Red Bay.

The model above is of the sloop San Juan. The earliest Atlantic Ocean boat ever found.
The San Juan sank in fairly shallow water, and settled on its keel. Swimmers at the time yanked out the cross beams which formed its deck in order to salvage masts, decent sized wood, and of course, the expensive cargo. The sides of the ship folded outwards like the leaves of a book and settled on the bottom. Eventually, they were covered in silt, thereby preserving it to the present day.
Canada became a world leader in under water archeology, partly as a result of this wreck, among others. As I talked to the present day diver-archeologists, they told me that they much prefer under water archaeology to conventional land based research because "we are not standing on the artifacts when we are in the water".
This was not your nice Carribean or Great Barrier Reef diving experience either...this water was cold-cold-cold! Its the Labrador current after all, that is so cold that icebergs (being made from fresh water) don't melt in it! The divers gave up on using dry suits, and went to wet "hot water" suits, where hot water was pumped into their suits down the same umbilical which brought their air. The visibility was problematic since they were actually digging into that silt! Hoses were brought down to do the "digging", which had air blown into them in order to cause a flow of water, like a vacuum cleaner....the silt was brought up to the surface, and passed through screens so that nothing would get missed. So when this operation was going on, you saw your assigned aluminum taped square and that was about it.

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