Linked to Moby-Dick and skippered by a man who (reluctantly) ate his own cousin, the whaling ship Two Brothers has been lost on a remote Pacific reef since 1823.
Now experts say they've found hard evidence of the ship 600 miles (970 kilometers) from Honolulu (map). If confirmed, the discovery would be the first of a wrecked whaler from Nantucket (map), Massachusetts—the birthplace of the U.S. whaling industry.
The shipwreck was found at French Frigate Shoals in the remote Papahnaumokuakea Marine National Monument, archaeologists announced Friday.
At its peak, from the 1820s to the 1840s, Nantucket was home to several dozen whaling ships. Whaling crews hunted whales species for their blubber, which was boiled down into oils that were used in everything from lamps to perfume to machine lubricants.
Whale oil "was the day's equivalent of our oil trade. ... The resource was so valuable that it drove man to hunt species to extinction," explained Kelly Gleason, a maritime archaeologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and maritime heritage coordinator at Papahanaumokuakea.
Whaling Captain a "Most Impressive Man"
Two Brothers was captained by George Pollard, Jr. The Nantucket native had the dubious distinction of commanding two whaling ships and losing both.
Pollard's first ship, the Essex, sank in 1820 after being rammed by a sperm whale—an incident that inspired Herman Melville's Moby-Dick.
Adrift at sea in small whaleboats for more than three months, the starving crew of the Essex resorted to cannibalism. Before being rescued by another ship, Pollard helped execute and eat his 18-year-old cousin, who had drawn a bad lot.
Despite the Essex tragedy, Pollard was offered another captaincy soon after, this time of the Two Brothers.
In the early 19th century, whaling voyages often took two years or more. The Two Brothers set sail from Nantucket in November 1821. By winter 1822, the ship had rounded the tip of South America. The crew was on its way to newly discovered whaling grounds near Japan when tragedy struck in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Before departing, Pollard had said he believed "lightning never strikes in the same place twice," according to Gleason. Yet on the night of February 11, 1823, the Two Brothers hit a shallow reef and quickly broke apart in the heavy surf.
The ship's crew was rescued, but Pollard's career as a whaling captain was over.
In Nantucket, he was known as a Jonah, a man who brings misfortune on a ship. Pollard was relegated to a career as a night watchman, one of the least respected social positions on the island.
According to the Nantucket Historical Association, Melville met Pollard many years later, and wrote of him: "To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most impressive man, tho' wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered."
The Telltale Harpoon?
The Two Brothers remained lost until 2008, when maritime archaeologists participating in a NOAA expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands discovered a large early 19th-century anchor in the shallow waters of French Frigate Shoals.
The team suspected from the beginning that the wreckage belonged to the Two Brothers, but they lacked strong evidence until 2009, when more artifacts, including the tip of a whaling harpoon, were discovered.
"A whaling harpoon is an exciting artifact to discover at a shipwreck site," said Gleason, who is leading the Two Brothers archaeological survey.
"The technology of the whaling harpoon changed a great deal over the course of the 19th century, so you can match a whaling harpoon to a specific time period and place of origin."
Also, "blacksmiths would have also etched the name of a ship on the harpoon, because if a harpooned whale got away, they wanted to make sure whoever caught it next knew that the whale was already claimed."
The artifacts are currently undergoing treatment, and it will be several more months before it's known whether the Two Brothers initials are indeed etched on the harpoon tip, which is heavily encrusted.
In the meantime, Gleason and her team say they're confident that the wreckage was the Two Brothers.
"There were three whaling ships lost at French Frigate Shoals: The Two Brothers, lost in 1823; the South Seaman, lost in 1859; and the Daniel Wood, lost in 1867," Gleason explained.
"The South Seaman and Daniel Wood were lost much later, and vessels of their post Civil War era would have had heavy machinery on board. The shipwreck at French Frigate Shoals is clearly a vessel out of Nantucket in the 1820s, based on the dates and provenience of dozens of artifacts."
Hard Evidence of Whaler's Floating Factory
Among the recovered artifacts are broken pieces of ceramic plates that may have belonged to Captain Pollard himself.
"The ceramics discovered at the Two Brothers site reflect the type of dishware you would find at the captain's table. These are not the plates of the crew," Gleason said.
Other artifacts include try-pots—big iron cauldrons used to boil down whale blubber into oil—iron cooking pots, and a small grinding wheel, probably for sharpening tools.
"People often think that shipwrecks are only glamorous if you find gold or silver, but in this case, it's truly a working ship," Gleason said. "All the artifacts that we're finding reflect that this was a floating factory."
(Related: See pictures of ancient treasure from a U.K. shipwreck.)
Very little wood from the ship has been recovered, but this isn't surprising, as the region's warm waters, rough waves, and marine animals would have quickly deteriorated the wood, Gleason added.
More Two Brothers Artifacts Await on Seafloor
In the meantime, Gleason said, the team plans to continue surveying and documenting the shipwreck site.
"Every time we return to Papahanaumokuakea, we discover something new," she said. "There are a lot of artifacts associated with this shipwreck that we haven't found yet."
Ben Simons, chief curator of the Nantucket Historical Association, said he's very excited by the discovery of the Two Brother's remains.
"A lot of whaling history is sort of slumbering in the history books and scattered in museums," Simons said. "But this [finding] allows the history to come alive for a modern age."