Marine scientists have located the shipwreck of the US Revenue Cutter Bear, a ship that served on the seas for nearly 88 years and also played a part in the capture of a Nazi spy ship. The ship had a famous history. It started working as a mercantile sealing ship in 1874. Since it could move in waters filled with pack ice, the US government bought it in the 1880s to use it for rescue and relief tasks in the Arctic. It also served as a relief ship during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-1919, as a floating museum, as a film set for a Hollywood movie, and as an exploration ship on the Antarctic expeditions of Admiral Richard Byrd. The ship also patrolled the waters of the Arctic for the US Navy in both of the world wars. In 1941, it helped in the capture of the Norwegian trawler Buskø, which was being used for reporting on the weather conditions in the North Atlantic by the German military intelligence service, the Abwehr.
The Bear was decommissioned in 1944 and based at a wharf in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It sank in 1963 after a storm at a spot south of Nova Scotia and east of Boston, as it was being hauled to Philadelphia. According to Brad Barr, who is the mission director for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s Maritime Heritage Program, and who has led the search for the wreck of the Bear for many years, the Bear has a remarkable history and is very crucial in many ways for American and global maritime heritage because of its wide traveling scope.
The first searches for the Bear’s wreck were carried out in the late 1970s. The group conducting the search included the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Harold Edgerton, who had also invented side-scan sonar which is used widely to detect and image objects on the ocean floor. Though the group tested this technology in 1979, they couldn’t locate the wreck probably because the exact location of its sinking had been misreported by the ship which was towing it to Philadelphia as per Barr. A secret submersible from the US Navy, the NR-1, which was nuclear powered, carried out another search in 2007. However, it was unsuccessful as well.
Finally, the US Coast Guard teamed up with the NOAA and others and started another search in 2019. After having mapped 62 square miles (160 square km) of the ocean floor with sonar, they were able to pinpoint two submerged objects in the target area. In September of that year, the team returned on a ship belonging to the Coast Guard which was equipped with a remotely-operated vehicle (ROV) to take underwater video and confirm that the largest object was the wreck of the Bear.
The wreck is situated on the ocean floor at a depth of around 200 feet (60 m) in Canadian waters around 90 nautical miles (167 km) south of Nova Scotia’s Cape Sable. The exact location of the wreck is being kept confidential to deter other divers from trying to find it. Also, the searchers are discussing with the Canadian government how the wreck can be protected. The ship’s old wooden keel is said to have been badly dented by the nets from fishing trawlers and strong flows on the ocean floor. However, the researchers have pinpointed various specific features of the Bear, including the ‘bow staples’ which strengthened its hill to enable it to deal with heavy ice in polar seas.
From steam to diesel
Though the bear had three masts for sailing, it was primarily made as a steamship to function as a sealer vessel in the 1870s. In the 1930s, the ship’s boiler was removed and substituted with a diesel engine as part of its refit for operations in Antarctica with Byrd. Consequently, various piles of metal can be observed within the remaining wood of the ship’s wreck, including sailing-ship technologies as per Brad Barr. There is a pile of metallic debris along with a deadeye (a fixed wooden pulley) jutting from it. The deadeyes have been used since the 18th century but were used on the Bear to secure the standing rigging.
Among the Bear’s most prominent achievements were its contribution in the 1884 rescue fleet for the Greely Expedition to the Arctic. The expedition had been lost in 1881 near Ellesmere Island, which lay to the northwest of Greenland. Many members of the expedition had died because of starvation and disease before Greely and other survivors were rescued by the Bear.
The Bear served as a government revenue cutter in Arctic waters for many years while accosting and checking many ships at sea. It often rescued many commercial ships which had become trapped in ice. Subsequently, the Bear was transferred to the US Navy and patrolled around Alaska during World War I, also delivering supplies there during the Spanish flu pandemic. In 1929, after being decommissioned, the ship was given away to the city of Oakland in California, where it was turned into a floating museum and subsequently in 1930 as a film set for the movie ‘The Sea-Wolf’, which was an adaptation of a novel by Jack London.
The ship was recommissioned for patrolling in the Arctic during World War II. It helped in the seizure of Buskø but was mostly based in Halifax later until it sank in 1963 during its final trip to Philadelphia, where it was to become a floating restaurant. According to Brad Barr, the scale of what the Bear did, how many lives it had saved and how many remarkable missions it had been on is really the kind of history that people should know of. To cherish the discovery of the wreck, Barr has compiled many years of historical research into various website posts which detail the many adventures of the Bear. He states that one of the various reasons the NOAA wanted to find the wreck of the Bear was because it would allow them to tell its myriad stories.