Red Bay, located on the north shore of the Strait of Belle Isle, Labrador, is an archaeological reference for the 16th-century transatlantic fishery, particularly for Basque whaling activities. Renowned since the Middle Ages for their highly developed navigation system, the Basques founded several whaling stations on the Strait of Belle Isle, starting in 1543. Their activity reached a peak in the 1560s and 1570s when 15 to 30 whaling ships came to Labrador each summer, returning to the Basque Country for winter. After the Franco-Spanish war of 1552-1559, Spanish Basques came to dominate the Strait of Belle Isle. About half of all crews headed to Red Bay, which they called Buitres ("Vultures"), while the others settled in along the coast between Chateau Bay and St. Modeste. The Basques almost exclusively captured bowhead whales, as right whales were already rare in the 16th century. They hunted during the summer and fall, at a rate of 15 to 30 whales per ship. They pursued the whales in small boats called chalupas, harpooned them and towed them to land in order to butcher them at the shore stations. They rendered the blubber to obtain oil that was used for lighting and soap making and was sold especially to textile manufacturers on both sides of the English Channel, where it was used it to lubricate wool before weaving. In February 1579, the Basque whaling industry entered a crisis when England abruptly closed its ports to Spanish oil. Soon after, the Spanish Navy requisitioned the whaling fleet to reinforce the West Indies armada that was weakened by attacks from English and Dutch corsairs. The crisis of the early 1580s spelled the end of the intensive Labrador industry, although Basques continued whaling until the 18th century at various places around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, including the Saguenay River area, at Miscou and on the Lower North Shore.
Archaeology at Red Bay revealed large quantities of remains related to intensive Basque whaling activities during the 16th century. More than 20 shore stations were located between 1978 and 1992. They are situated in sheltered areas fronting on deep water where whales could be maneuvered close to shore for processing. Blubber was stripped from the carcasses, chopped into small cubes and placed in "ovens" or "tryworks" (copper cauldrons set in masonry) for rendering. The large cauldrons were heated with fires fed from scraps of blubber from which all the oil had been extracted. The oil was skimmed from the cauldrons, purified in water to allow impurities to settle, and stored in oak and beech casks for the return voyage to Europe.
Besides the tryworks, shore stations often included a cooperage where casks were assembled and repaired. Small living sites, often no more than a stone hearth located near a bedrock outcrop and covered by baleen or sail cloth, were found scattered throughout Red Bay. Lookouts (atalayas), apparently of somewhat more substantial construction, were located in places from which whales could be spotted during their annual migrations along the coast of the Strait of Belle Isle.
A large cemetery containing the remains of more than 140 individuals was also discovered. Many of the graves contained more than one individual, suggesting that accidental deaths were not uncommon in the dangerous business of whaling.
In December 1565, disaster struck at Red Bay. The San Juan de Pasajes, while riding at anchor in the bay with other whaling ships, broke its moorings during a storm, struck the island and sank with a full load of 1000 casks of oil. From 1978 to 1985, underwater investigations of the San Juan wreck revealed the Basque shipbuilding industry at its height. The ship's architectural design was based on an ancient geometrical system, while its construction showed the intimate links between forestry, design and carpentry practices.
Analysis of the casks found in the hold showed that the chaîne opératoire of whaling cooperage was coordinated throughout the Atlantic. The wooden staves came from Brittany; the casks were built according to the custom of Bordeaux and were then dismantled and shipped in "shooks" to the Basque Country, before crossing to Red Bay where they were reassembled, hooped and filled with 225 litres of oil. In addition to its cargo, the San Juan contained rigging elements, navigational instruments, seaman's tools and other everyday items. Beneath the wreck, archaeologists discovered five small crafts that were used by the Basques, including an 8-metre chalupa that is conserved and exhibited at Red Bay. A replica built at Pasajes in the Basque Country sailed from Québec to Red Bay in 2006, under a rig with two masts. Finally, in the context of ongoing research at Red Bay, Parks Canada archaeologists have located the wrecks of four other Basque whalers, making the site a veritable laboratory for the study of 16th-century ships.
Today a visitor centre at Red Bay is operated by Parks Canada during the summer months.