Thanks to toponyms, documents, and oral tradition, Canadians were already aware of the first European whalers who came to their land. The clues found by Selma Huxley in the Oñati, Burgos, and Valladolid archives led to the search for the whaling ship called the San Juan.
The wreck was found in 1978 close to the town of Red Bay in Labrador, ten meters down, under a thick layer of waste, stone, and sediment, thanks to field investigation by the group of archaeologists from the Parcs Canada public agency. They were even more surprised when they realized that the wood had been preserved in optimum conditions, considering the centuries that had passed since the shipwreck.
A diver inspects the San Juan wreck, connected to a hose supplying hot water to endure in the cold water of Red Bay.
Guided by Robert Grenier, unprecedented archaeological work was carried out over the next six years, removing and recording each piece of the entire boat structure, the cargo, the objects that belonged to the sailors, and the whaling launch that sank with the ship.
The wreck was in very good condition due to low water temperatures and because much of the structure had been kept in an anaerobic state, covered in mud. The wood, even some of the ropes, were exceptionally well-preserved leading to an exemplary investigation in the field of underwater archaeology at the time.
It took almost 30 years of work to process and complete all the information obtained from the field. Everything was researched, from the construction materials to the tools used for working on the wood. Models were made and the launch found trapped below the San Juan was strengthened and exhibited. The wreck remains underwater, protected, monitored and in a stable conservation environment.
Drawing showing the archaeological excavation of the San Juan wreck.
The archaeological collection and Red Bay museum
This pioneering investigation was followed by further, similar discoveries in the Red Bay zone: more wrecks of the same type, ovens to melt whale fat, watchtowers for look out for whales, even a cemetery to bury anyone that died during the whaling campaign.
It was decided to create a museum revolving around the theme of Basque whalers in the area to present this heritage and exhibit all the information and objects that have been found in the area.
"Red Bay National Historic Site" museum exhibiting the Whaling Launch found alongside the San Juan.
In 2013, the entire Red Bay archaeological collection was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Albaola is taking over this investigation to revive this emblematic ship.