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Fast Facts: NOAA and Partners Discover 207-Year-Old Whaling Vessel

GULF OF MEXICO— On March 23, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Association (NOAA) and partners announced the discovery of a 207-year-old whaling shipwreck, called Industry, found on the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. The remains of the 64-foot long, two-masted wooden brig illuminates an unexplored chapter of American history when descendants of African enslaved people and Native Americans served as essential crew in one of the nation’s oldest industries.


While the crew list for the last voyage of Industry disappeared when the ship sank, lists of crews from previous voyages describe crewmembers and officers as including Black people, Native Americans, White people, and multiracial people.


“Today we celebrate the discovery of a lost ship that will help us better understand the rich story of how people of color succeeded as captains and crew members in the nascent American whaling industry of the early 1800s,” said NOAA Administrator Rick Spinrad, Ph.D in a March 23 press release. “The discovery reflects how African Americans and Native Americans prospered in the ocean economy despite facing discrimination and other injustices. It is also an example of how important partnerships of federal agencies and local communities are to uncovering and documenting our nation’s maritime history.”


NOAA Ocean Exploration documented the brig Industry shipwreck at a depth of 6,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico. The brig sank in the summer of 1836 after a storm snapped its masts and opened the hull to the sea.


“Black and Native American history is American history, and this critical discovery serves as an important reminder of the vast contributions Black and Native Americans have made to our country,” said U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Don Graves in the March 23 press release from NOAA. “This 19th century whaling ship will help us learn about the lives of the Black and Native American mariners and their communities, as well as the immense challenges they faced on land and at sea.”


With guidance provided by way of satellite connection from partner scientists onshore, a team aboard NOAA Ship Okeanos Explorer piloted a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to explore the seafloor on Feb. 25, at a suspected location first spotted by an energy company in 2011 and viewed briefly by an autonomous vehicle in 2017, but never thoroughly examined.


Equipped with extensive research on Industry and the video from the ROV, the team of shoreside scientists led by James Delgado, Ph.D., senior vice president of SEARCH Inc., Scott Sorset, marine archeologist for the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), and Michael Brennan, Ph.D., also of SEARCH Inc., have officially confirmed that the wreck is most likely the brig Industry.


The whaling brig was built in 1815 in Westport, Massachusetts, and hunted whales across the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean, and the Gulf of Mexico for 20 years. Unfortunately, it was lost when a strong storm snapped its masts and opened its hull to the sea on May 26, 1836. The Industry was whaling primarily for sperm whales more than 70 miles off the mouth of the Mississippi River; it is the only whaling ship known to have been lost in the Gulf of Mexico out of the 214 whaling voyages linked from the 1780s to the 1870s.


While Industry eventually sank, there is a mystery about what happened to the crew. However, because of new research by Robin Winters, a librarian at the Westport Free Public Library, the crew’s fate is finally clear. Winters tracked down a June 17, 1836, article in the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror that reported the crew of Industry was picked up at sea by another Westport whaling ship, Elizabeth, and crew members were returned safely to Westport.


“This was so fortunate for the men on board,” said Delgado, who worked closely with Winters and several other local historians to confirm the identity of Industry. “If the Black crewmen had tried to go ashore, they would have been jailed under local laws. And if they could not pay for their keep while in prison, they would have been sold into slavery.”


SEARCH Inc., working with the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, plans to nominate the wreck site for the National Register of Historic Places as part of a larger BOEM project, led by SEARCH, to document historic 19th-century shipwrecks in the Gulf of Mexico.


“BOEM is proud to be a part of this important discovery,” said BOEM Director Amanda Lefton. “We work hard with our partners to safeguard historical and cultural treasures in the outer continental shelf.”

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