CAMBRIDGE BAY, NUNAVUT — Iconic, historic and after 167 years, still lost in the frigid waters of Canada’s Arctic. But searchers renewing their search for the elusive lost ships of the ill-fated Franklin expedition are hoping this may be the year they find the missing ships.
A private-public team is launching a new six-week effort, costing $275,000, to find the two missing vessels from Sir John Franklin’s tragic 1845 search for the Northwest Passage. They’re hoping futile searches of years past will help narrow the potential locations of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper noted the pull of the lost expedition during a visit to this hamlet on the Northwest Passage — that elusive channel that expedition leader Sir John Franklin was hoping to navigate. “Why do we search for the Franklin … matter of fact, the wreckage of the Franklin expedition is a national historic site … It is the only undiscovered historic site,” Harper told reporters Thursday. “We feel an obligation to discover it. It is historic and iconic in our country’s history. That is why people still write songs about it and essays about it,” he said.
The two Royal Navy ships sailed from England on May 19, 1845 with the goal of crossing to the Pacific Ocean via the Northwest Passage. The expedition, with its 134 crew, carried enough provisions to last three years.
But apart from a chance meeting with whaling ships that August and occasional encounters with the Inuit, the crew would never be seen alive again, despite an extensive search effort.
A message found in a cairn in 1859 on Victory Point, King William Island, revealed that both ships had become trapped in ice in late 1846 and were stuck for 18 months. After Franklin and 23 others died aboard the trapped ships, the remaining sailors opted to take their chances trying to trek back to land.
Harper stopped by the research vessel that will be leading this year’s search effort, an effort that could continue for another two years if nothing is found. “I told the crew of the boat, I’m sure some day they are going to come around the bend and there’s going to be the ship and there’s going to be the body of Franklin right on the wheel and they’re going to find him right there waiting all this time,” Harper said.
Led by Parks Canada, the 2012 Franklin Expedition is costing $275,000 brings together public and private sector partners and universities in the search for the two vessels in two areas where the vessels could be located. One is in the region of the Victoria Strait and Alexandra Strait region, where one of the vessels is thought to have foundered. The second is near O’Reilly Island, west of the Adelaide peninsula where Inuit stories talk of one of the wrecks.
While the search efforts so far have been unable to locate the ships, officials say they’ve been able to narrow in possible locations.
As they’ve done in past years, the searchers will be going high-tech, using side-scan sonar, a remote underwater vehicle as well as airborne technology.
Harper said over the last four years, just under $500,000 has been spent on searches, a figure he suggested as a bargain. “The reason it is so relatively inexpensive is that we have other partners, including private partners who are so keen to find the Franklin expedition they are determined to put their own money into it,” Harper said.
He also said the searches are providing valuable research into Arctic waters. “Remember, they’re not just looking for the Franklin. They’re involved in comprehensive surveying as part of the process,” he said.