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Rub-a-dub-dub, seven men in a … chalupa!

For the week of Monday, March 16, 2015

On March 19, 1998, Parks Canada conservators finished a curious puzzle. They had finally reassembled the many parts of a 450 year-old rowboat known as a chalupa, discovered at the bottom of Red Bay Harbour in southern Labrador. Chalupas were small, seven-man craft used to approach whales as part of the Basque whale fishery. Beginning in the early 1500s, whalers from the Basque Country of southern France and northern Spain exploited the rich waters of Canada’s east coast for whales and codfish. Red Bay alone drew thousands of whalers each year. Centuries after it sank, this boat has helped us understand the history of boat building and the early whale fishery.

A diver inspecting boat pieces underwater
© Parks Canada

The Red Bay Basque Whaling Station was discovered through detailed archival research. Working in archives in the Basque Country, Dr. Selma Barkham found Spanish documents that gave the location of a sunken whaling vessel, the San Juan, shipwrecked in 1565. In 1978, Parks Canada began an eight-year underwater archaeology project at Red Bay, the first such operation conducted in subarctic waters. The vessel they excavated is believed to be the San Juan. Divers also found navigation instruments and everyday items such as leather shoes, wooden bowls, and hemp rope. Land archaeology by Memorial University found stone ovens used to boil whale oil, a cemetery, several buildings, and many artifacts including whale bones.

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A reconstructed chalupa
© Parks Canada / GMNP / O1-151

Four ships and several smaller boats were eventually found at the bottom of the harbour. The chalupa was the most complete of the small boats. It was brought to the surface and sent to Parks Canada’s Ottawa laboratories for conservation in 1996, where it was cleaned and treated with various compounds. Restoration also began in 1996, and the project overcame several challenges. Warped timbers had to be reshaped and mounted on a frame strong enough to survive shipment back to Red Bay, where the chalupa is now on display.

Red Bay is not only a National Historic Site; in 2013, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This is the 450th anniversary of the sinking of the San Juan! To learn more about Basque whalers, explore Red Bay National Historic Site  and read Death far from home. To discover other Parks Canada underwater archaeology stories, see The Sinking of RMS Empress of Ireland and In Pursuit of the Erebus and Terror: An Arctic Mystery in the This Week in History archives, and consult the Search for Franklin’s Lost Vessels.

Follow us on Twitter @ParksCanada. Also, click here to learn about the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.

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