Rhode Island Whaling Ship Identified Off Patagonia After Nearly Two Centuries Lost at Sea

Scientists used tree rings found in the wood of the remains to help trace its origins back to Warren, Rhode Island.
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Lead author Ignacio Mundo measures one of the ship’s ribs in preparation for sampling. Photo by Mónica Grosso.

Scientists investigating an old shipwreck off the coast of southern Argentina are near confident that it contains the remains of the long-lost Dolphin, a globe-trotting whaling ship from Warren, Rhode Island, that succumbed to the seas in 1859. After years of researching the sunken ship’s origins, a new analysis by Argentinian and American researchers of the tree rings in the vessel’s timbers lead to the breakthrough in its identification. Ignacio Mundo of Argentina’s Laboratory of Dendrochronology and Environmental History and scientists from the Columbia Climate School’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory compared the rings to a database of North American trees to determine that the timbers were taken from New England and the southeastern U.S. before 1850 when the Dolphin was built. Their conclusion is also based on artifacts (such as “try-works” cauldrons and bricks used for boiling blubber) found near the wreck as well as historical records from Rhode Island and Argentina. You can learn more about the findings in the just-published journal here.

“It’s fascinating that people built this ship in a New England town so long ago, and it turned up on the other side of the world,” says Mukund Rao, a coauthor of the study.

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In deeper water near the wreck, next to the diver lies the heavily encrusted, upside-down remains of an iron cauldron, along with bricks from what might have been an oven used to heat blubber. Object to the right may have been a hawse pipe on the deck, where anchor chains passed through. Photo courtesy of PROAS-INAPL.

An unpublished manuscript by local Warren historian Walter Nebiker claims the Dolphin was constructed between August and October of 1850, towards the end of the whaling industry’s height. Made of oak and other woods and measuring in at 111 feet long, the Dolphin launched from the Ocean State on November 16, 1850. Described by Nebiker as “probably the fastest square-rigger of all time,” the ship traveled the globe scouring the Indian and Atlantic oceans for oil and paying visits to the Azores, Seychelles, Zanzibar and Australia. Her ill-fated final voyage departed from Warren on October 2, 1858. A letter to the owners from the Captain said she was destroyed a few months later when she, “lay upon the rocks in the southwestern part of New Bay”— thought to be a reference to the Golfo Nuevo, one of Patagonia’s natural harbors 10,000 miles away. An Argentine mariner rescued forty-two crew members of the Dolphin and took them to Carmen de Patagones, where the refugees hopefully found a way home.

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Cross section of a rib made of white oak (more specifically, a first futtock). This sample had 156 rings; its last ring was dated 1845. Holes in upper part were made by wood-eating marine worms. Photo by Ignacio Mundo.

In 2004, shifting sediments revealed the partial remains of a wooden vessel in the intertidal flats just off Puerto Madryn. They were excavated by marine archaeologists, including Cristian Murray of Argentina’s National Institute of Anthropology and Latin American Studies, during low tides a couple years later. Speculations that the wreck may be that of the Dolphin started popping up in 2012, and Murray published a paper suggesting the same in 2019. He and colleagues re-excavated the wreck that same year but there was initial reluctance to damage the remains with invasive testing methods — when they contacted Mundo, he said the only way to get decent samples was to chainsaw out a couple dozen cross sections of the ribs and planking. Luckily, in the end, curiosity won out. But even now with the new analyses, some scientists are still hesitant to name the vessel with 100 percent certainty. However, Lamont dendrochronologist (a.k.a. someone who studies tree rings to determine dates) Mukund Rao is convinced.

“The archaeologists are more conservative—they prefer a slightly higher standard, and I don’t blame them,” he says. “It’s true we don’t have something like the ship’s bell. But for me, the story is there in the tree rings.”