Ryan Harris, senior underwater archaeologist for Parks Canada, puts down the sonar pole from the survey boat Kinglett, with crew from the Canadian Coast Guard and the Canadian Hydrographic Service. Maybe, just maybe, the 160-year dream of discovering one of the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition has already been realized, and the Parks Canada-led team that completed a month-long search last week just doesn’t know it yet.
That’s a slim but real possibility, acknowledges Parks Canada underwater archeologist Ryan Harris, who says a portion of the seabed data gathered during this summer’s high-profile probe of Arctic waters near King William Island still has to be examined for possible traces of HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, the two Royal Navy vessels commanded by Sir John Franklin that famously vanished during his search for the Northwest Passage in the late 1840s.
“It’s possible, because there actually is some AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle) data that I haven’t looked at yet, and there is some multi-beam sonar data,” said Harris, who led the Canadian government’s renewed hunt for the ships.
“There were areas of the ocean that were really shallow north of the Royal Geographical Society Islands, so we have a small path that was done with multi-beam because it would have been a bit tricky to tow a side-scan sonar system in those shallow waters,” Harris told Postmedia News. “And that data has to be post-processed at a very high resolution to identify targets in the shallow waters. “It’s a small chance,” he added, “but there is the outside possibility” of identifying the resting place of one of the ships while processing and analyzing the sea-floor data this fall.
“It has happened to us in the past that in reviewing (data) we have identified wreck sites that we didn’t see in real time,” said Harris, who also led the successful 2010 search off Banks Island in the Western Arctic for HMS Investigator, one of 19th-century British vessels sent to search for Franklin’s lost ships. While it’s not “outside the realm of possibility” that a Franklin ship could be discovered at a Parks Canada computer lab in the coming months, Harris said: “I imagine we’ll be at this (seabed scanning) again.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced in August that the federal government — in cooperation with the government of Nunavut — was launching a new, three-year effort to discover the ships, which have already been declared national historic sites despite their unknown locations.
Franklin, a Royal Navy explorer who had already led two important overland expeditions in northern Canada, embarked on his ill-fated search for a route through the Northwest Passage in 1845. By 1848, after the 130 sailors aboard Terror and Erebus had experienced extreme hardship and little progress through the ice-choked Eastern Arctic, Franklin was dead and his ships were trapped frozen waters near King William Island.
A desperate attempt by the survivors to march south to a fur-trading post on mainland Canada led to the deaths of all members of the expedition. The ships, probably crushed by the ice, drifted to unknown locations and vanished beneath the waves.
An earlier bid to find the vessels was launched by Harper’s government in 2008. Although Parks Canada conducted searches in 2008, 2010 and 2011, no trace of the ships was found.
Harris described the underwater component of this year’s search a success because his team will at least be able to rule out a significant swath of the Arctic Ocean that had been considered a potential site for the wrecks of the Erebus or Terror.
But there were some notable discoveries earlier this month along the shore of King William Island during the dry-land component of this year’s search, headed by Government of Nunavut archeologist Doug Stenton. Combing an area where more than 100 survivors from Franklin’s abandoned ships traveled by small boats and on foot in the late 1840s — their ultimately ill-fated attempt to reach the mainland after Terror and Erebus had become hopelessly locked in the ice — Stenton’s team discovered bone fragments, nails and screws believed to have been left behind by the Franklin Expedition and, most remarkably, a 19th-century toothbrush that must have belonged to one of Franklin’s doomed sailors.
Harris acknowledged there was “nothing earth-shattering” among the artifacts “in terms of what it’s going to tell us about the fate of the expedition.” But he said: “I think the value is really in the evocative nature of the artifacts recovered. The toothbrush, which is such a personal item, really reflects this attempt at a dignified retreat from the ships.”
Harris also noted that most of the artifacts recovered from the Franklin Expedition during 19th- and 20th-century searches of the region have ended up at the Smithsonian museums in the U.S. or at the National Maritime Museum in Britain.
“Very few of these materials are available for curation and display in our own country,” said Harris. “So even though these are previously identified Franklin sites, I think the continued archeological examination of these sites is certainly worthwhile, if only to repatriate the Franklin story somewhat, and to share it better and more evocatively with Canadians.”