OTTAWA—Archeologists are heading north again this summer, this time with an unmanned underwater vehicle, in hopes of finding the doomed ships lost in Sir John Franklin’s mythic 1845 voyage. Buoyed after finding the HMS Investigator — a ship sent in search of Franklin’s two lost vessels — last July on the shores of Banks Island in the Beaufort Sea, they are now on the hunt for the HMS Erebus and the aptly named HMS Terror.
The two vessels and their 134 crew members were searching for the Northwest Passage when they got stuck in ice in September 1846 just off of King William Island. Handwritten notes from the crew, artifacts and other evidence discovered in the more than 150 years since, suggest Franklin died June 11, 1947, while the remaining crew survived until about April 1848. They died while trying to trek back to the mainland, what is now Nunavut.
“This is the year, I hope, that we will solve one of the great mysteries of the history of Arctic exploration, the location and the final resting place of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror,” said Environment Minister Peter Kent, who has responsibility for Canada’s national parks and historic sites.
What makes the scientists and archeologists so hopeful this year is the employment of an unmanned underwater vehicle, courtesy of the University of Victoria, that is capable of searching the frigid ocean floors. The surface search will cover about 200-square-kilometres while the underwater search will cover another 100-square-kilometres, said Ryan Harris, a Parks Canada underwater archeologist involved in the hunt. The underwater vehicle can run for 16 hours a day before needing to have its battery recharged, he said.
The search area has been whittled down from notes and messages that were written by crew members before their deaths, by oral histories passed down through generations of Inuit, and by other means of archeological sleuthing. It’s through these methods that investigators figured out, from oddly shaped human skeletal remains, that the crew may have resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.
“We do have clues,” said lead investigator Marc-Andre Bernier. “We know where the ships were abandoned. We know part of the story from some of the messages that were left by the Franklin expedition. “One of our challenges is that the historical story ends at one point but after this we are relying on archeology to find the ships.”
The HMS Investigator was discovered three minutes into the search last July. It was largely intact, with the deck of the wreckage just eight metres below the water’s surface. Parks Canada archeologists are setting off for a return visit next Thursday where, for the first time, they will get to dive and inspect the wreckage firsthand.
The hunt for the two Franklin ships, which will take place over six days beginning Aug. 21, may be more difficult given that it will occur at two different locations — the Queen Maud Gulf and the Victoria Strait. “It’s a big puzzle, it’s a big area, but we are piecing it together,” said Bernier. “If we find another piece of the puzzle where it’s not, then that helps too.”