Parks Canada is spending $475,000 to buy two high-tech research tools it hopes could help crack the mystery of the lost 19th-century ships of the Franklin expedition and reveal other sunken secrets of the country's underwater cultural heritage.
Searchers are hoping to add to their research arsenal with a $300,000 autonomous underwater vehicle and a $175,000 remotely operated vehicle as they continue their quest in the cold waters off Nunavut this summer, looking for any clue that might reveal what happened to HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
But production delays and the challenge of ensuring timely delivery of goods in the North mean the AUV and the ROV have not yet arrived, more than three weeks after Parks Canada began its six-week 2013 search for the reinforced wooden vessels lost in the expedition led by Sir John Franklin.
"They're fantastic tools," Ryan Harris, Parks Canada's senior underwater archeologist, said in an interview via satellite phone from the Martin Bergmann research vessel in the Alexandra Strait. "The better tools you have, the better work you can do."
The AUV is a smaller, more manoeuvrable tool that can be deployed from the Martin Bergmann, and will allow searchers to take their sonar scanning into areas where there are more treacherous, shallower waters.
The ROV, with its high-definition camera, would be deployed if something interesting turned up on the scans and would help confirm a discovery without sending divers into the water, said Marc-André Bernier, chief of Parks Canada’s underwater archeology service.
This ROV can go to a greater depth than the one Parks Canada used in the past.
Bernier says the AUV and the ROV will be used in Parks Canada work across the country in national historic sites, parks and marine conservation areas. "Both of those are going to be daily tools for just about every project. Regardless of the northern expedition, this is the type of equipment that we acquire for our day-to-day work elsewhere in the Parks Canada system."
Optimism and then doom
Franklin set out from England in 1845 with 128 other sailors, amid great optimism and hope the aging British naval hero would finally discover the long-sought Northwest Passage.
According to Inuit testimony, recorded by search parties after the ships were beset in ice in 1846 and deserted by their crews off King William Island two years later, one ship sank in deep water west of the island. The other went south, maybe as far as the Queen Maud Gulf and perhaps into Wilmot and Crampton Bay.
Scientists return to Arctic waters looking for lost ships
The men all died, a sad demise that has never been fully explained and which has become something of a Victorian gothic horror story, complete with hints of cannibalism.
Parks Canada's current Franklin search is its fifth in six years and comes with a budget of $130,000, down from $275,000 in 2012.
Bernier says that decrease was not influenced by any budget pressure or cut within the federal government. The annual Franklin search budget has ranged from $50,000 to $275,000 and depends on the equipment that is available and the annual search approach that Parks Canada chooses. "Every year we assess what we can do, what is available and we go about it being as efficient as we can," said Bernier.
Harris isn't sure the new research tools will be available before this year's Franklin search wraps up later this month. "It's been a while since I've received much in the way of good news from various manufacturers."
Working out the bugs
But such delays don’t necessarily surprise him. "A lot of the technologies we try to use in this project and other projects — we're often working with very new products where they're still working out some of the bugs," he said.
The northern weather this summer has presented some difficulties because of high winds and rough seas, but Harris has been "quite happy" with efforts based out of Parks Canada's own 10-metre aluminum survey vessel and done in conjunction with the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
"We had a full seven days of really productive survey," Harris said, noting that weather conditions when the survey vessel was available were particularly ideal for that sidescan sonar work. "We actually had just a fantastic week of weather for surveying up here in the Victoria Strait." For four days out of the seven, winds were light, or sea conditions were flat and calm, something Harris said is “really, really rare up here.”
So far, searchers have covered more than 200 square kilometres in 2013. "In terms of the amount of ground we're covering, we're very, very pleased with the progress this year," said Harris. "Certainly we're on schedule to surpass any year's coverage to date by a healthy margin."
No signs yet
Last year, searchers covered 424.3 square kilometres, bringing the total area covered to slightly more than 800 square kilometres — or about half of a total area Parks Canada considers to hold high potential for a discovery.
But so far, the Erebus or Terror have remained elusive.
Unlike last year, there are fewer agency partners such as the Canadian Hydrographic Service along for the search, although the Royal Canadian Navy is on board for the first time and is gaining experience in remote sensing, Bernier said.
But some land-based work at known Franklin expedition archeological sites on King William Island has continued this year. "That's very important to us because it helps to tell the story,” says Harris. “You never know what clues might lie on land that might shed light on the last desperate throes of the ill-fated expedition.”
Last year, searchers discovered small artifacts and bits of human remains connected to the doomed polar mission, including buttons, wooden debris, a toothbrush, bone fragments, a tooth and other small items.
On the water, if the sonar scans do turn up anything deemed worthy of further investigation, Bernier said he would be "pretty ecstatic." "But we don't get really fully excited until we have visual confirmation that that's what it is."
Each year brings Parks Canada nearer to solving the Franklin mystery, he says. "Every square kilometre that's covered is getting us closer, for sure."