Discovery at Red Bay

By Awake! writer in Canada

“IT’S NOT the end of the earth, but you can see it from there,” some might say. If you have ever visited Red Bay, in eastern Canada, most likely you too would describe it as a place almost at the end of the earth. This tiny community is nestled on Labrador’s scenic coast, off the Strait of Belle Isle. What makes quiet Red Bay with its sheltered harbor unique and fascinating?

Its Unique History

The town teems with visitors when it comes time for whale watching. But this has not always been its attraction. Over 400 years ago, right whales and bowhead whales were hunted here for their highly valued oil. According to one source, “in times of scarcity . . . , [whale oil] was worth $10,000 a barrel in present-day money.” Basque whalers from the border region of France and Spain were among the first Europeans to exploit Canada’s natural resources. It was mainly whale oil that was used to light Europe. It also lubricated machinery, was an ingredient in soaps and cosmetics, and was used in leather, wool, and paint processing. During the last half of the 16th century, Red Bay was the largest whaling port in the world. Thus, one of the first-known industrial complexes was established in Canada​—the whaling industry.

How Do We Know?

Documentary evidence found in Basque archives directed the attention of archaeologists and historians to Red Bay. Records indicate that a Spanish galleon known as the San Juan had sunk there during a storm in 1565.

Land excavations on Saddle Island, just off the shore of Red Bay, unearthed artifacts related to the early whaling industry, such as a double-barbed harpoon head. In fact, visitors can still see piles of red Spanish roofing tiles up and down the beaches. For years local children played with them. One resident commented, “We used the red tiles as chalk to draw and color in pictures on the rocks, never knowing what we were playing with!”

In the summer of 1978, working from a barge approximately 100 feet [30 m] off the shore of Saddle Island, underwater archaeologists retrieved an oak plank. This was quite significant, since oak was the wood most used by Basque shipwrights and it is not found on the barren coast of Labrador. On a later dive, they discovered the remarkably well-preserved remains of a ship they believed to be the San Juan. The icy cold waters of Red Bay had preserved the vessel. Covered by layers of silt, it rested on the seafloor at a depth of about 30 feet [10 m]. Evidently, over time the weight of masses of ice split the ship lengthwise, flattening it like an opened book. Archaeologists were excited about this find, since it was the first largely intact 16th-century merchant ship ever excavated in the Americas north of Florida.

Could It Be the San Juan?

Divers arduously excavated the vessel piece by piece and numbered each piece. After careful study the vessel was reburied on the ocean floor for further preservation. What was learned? This ship, an estimated  300 tons, was built for seaworthiness, not for looks or extravagance. Both ends were squared off to ensure full storage capacity for the large cargoes of whale oil that would be carried back to Spain. Early records concerning the sunken San Juan indicate she had a full cargo of whale oil aboard. Much of it was salvaged by the crew. On the lower levels of the shipwreck, divers discovered the remains of approximately 450 barrels, evidently the ones left behind because they were too difficult to retrieve. No human remains were found aboard. Basque documents did not mention any loss of life. These similarities have led researchers to believe that this vessel is the sunken San Juan. In addition, while excavating the sunken galleon, a Basque whaling boat, known as a chalupa, was discovered. The chalupa is “one of mankind’s great achievements in marine technology,” claims Robert Grenier, head of marine archaeology at Parks Canada.

Who would have thought that quiet Red Bay was once a bustling whaling capital? Times have indeed changed. Yet, here bits of history remain for all to see.

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Labrador

Red Bay

Strait of Belle Isle

Island of Newfoundland

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One-tenth-scale model of what is presumed to be the “San Juan”

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Parks Canada Agency, Photographer Denis Pagé

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Far right: Diver excavating the sunken vessel

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Bill Curtsinger/National Geographic Images Collection

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Far right: The right whale is an endangered species

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NOAA

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Basque whaling boat, a “chalupa,” discovered in Red Bay

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Parks Canada/Shane Kelly/1998

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Red Bay

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Photo courtesy of the Viking Trail Tourism Association

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Red Spanish roofing tiles often wash ashore

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Parks Canada/Doug Cook/1997