At its peak in the late sixteenth century, over two thousand men lived in Red Bay during the whaling season, producing half a million gallons of whale oil that was subsequently shipped back to Europe on a month-long voyage. Whale oil was used for light, lubrication and as an additive to drugs, soap and pitch; one 55-gallon barrel could fetch a price equivalent to $10,000 today – so for the Basques the discovery of Labrador’s right-whale stocks in the 1530s was tantamount to striking gold. Yet as well as the treacherous journey from Spain to what they knew as Terranova, the Basques withstood terrible hardships to claim their booty. Once in Labrador, they rowed fragile wooden craft called chalupas into these rough seas and then attached drogues to the whales to slow them down. It was then a matter of following their prey for hours until the whale surfaced and could be lanced to death. Three factors brought the whale boom to an end: first, the Basques were so successful that within thirty years they had killed off more than fifteen thousand right whales; second, the industry became more hazardous with early freeze-ups in the 1580s; and, finally, many Basque ships and men were absorbed into the ill-fated Spanish Armada of 1588 – by the 1620s the annual migration was over.
Serious study of the Red Bay area began in 1977, when marine archeologists discovered the remains of three Basque galleons and four chalupas. Land excavations uncovered try-works (where the whale blubber was boiled down into oil), personal artefacts and, in 1982, a cemetery on Saddle Island where the remains of 140 young men were found. Many were lying in groups, indicating that they died as crew members when chasing the whales, but some had not been buried – suggesting at least part of the community died of starvation when an early freeze dashed their chances of getting home.