Famous Exploration Ship, the USS Bear, Found at Last

On October 14, the U.S. Coast Guard and the NOAA announced that they had found the long-lost remains of the 135-year-old arctic rescue vessel, the USS Bear.

The sunken ship lay 150km south of Cape Sable, Nova Scotia. Famously, it went down in 1963, when a storm popped its towline and punctured the hull. At the time, it was being towed from Nova Scotia to Philadelphia.

It wasn’t until 2019 that National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers began charting the seabed near the Bear’s supposed foundering point. In early 2021, advanced remote vehicles fitted with videography equipment zeroed in on the precise location of the wreckage.

The Bear and the Greely Relief Expedition

Depiction of Camp Clay interior.

Greely’s men spent the arctic winter in a cold stone shelter, trying to survive until rescue.


The Greely disaster

The discovery both closes a decades-long search and recalls a historically significant lesson in arctic expeditions. The U.S. Navy purchased the Bear in 1884 for a dire mission to rescue the survivors of the Greely expedition to the Canadian High Arctic.

Adolphus Greely, a lieutenant of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, arrived on Ellesmere Island with his 24 men three years earlier as part of the first International Polar Year. They did a lot of science and also bested the old British record for Farthest North.

However, they were dropped off at their research site by ship and they relied on another ship to reach them again and pick them up. Twice, those relief expeditions failed because of bad ice, and Greely and his men left their station and retreated 400km south in the hope of rescue.

The remains of the Greely stone shelter today. Photo: Jerry Kobalenko


For eight months, they overwintered on a horrible rocky island, living in a cold stone shelter, trying to stretch out 40 days of food. Only six of the original 25 would survive this ordeal. Some desperate men secretly cannibalized the bodies of their deceased comrades.

By the time the Bear and its sister ship, the Thetis, arrived in 1884, Greely and the remaining men were on the verge of death. Six survived, but it was the greatest disaster in U.S arctic exploration.

USS Bear

The Bear in Godhaven, Greenland in 1884, en route to search for Greely and his men.

Later Operations and Wreck


Following the celebrated rescue, the U.S. Treasury Department assumed custody of both ships and commissioned them as “revenue cutters”. According to the NOAA’s press release, the Bear later came under the purview of the U.S. Coast Guard. It served as an arctic patrol ship, “saving lives and dispensing justice in the remote and often challenging region” for more than 40 years. In 1948, the Coast Guard sold the Bear to a sealing privateer. It was decommissioned entirely not long afterward.

In 1963, the Bear transferred custody again, this time to a business owner in Philidelphia. He intended to repurpose the ship into a museum and restaurant. During its dispatch from Nova Scotia to Philidelphia, the Bear met its demise.