ABOARD CCGS SIR WILFRID LAURIER—It took an arsenal of electronic devices to hunt down the Franklin expedition shipwreck. There were multi-beam 3D sonar towfishes, pinging off uncharted Arctic seabed, as hydrographers’ boats found the clearest paths to prime search areas.
Underwater archeologists used less sophisticated sidescan sonar, towed behind a boat, to scan the seafloor for telltale shapes that could lead them to a wreck. The Klein System 3000, a silver bullet-nosed towfish with two black fins, delivered big time by creating the sonar image that gave Parks Canada underwater archeologists that eureka moment last week. But it was their Falcon Seaeye remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, that put eyes on one of Sir John Franklin’s three-masters for the first time since Inuit reported seeing the deserted vessel floating on an ice floe in the mid-19th century.
The ROV was attached by fibre optic cables to a control unit piloted by senior underwater archeologist Ryan Harris.
In rolling seas, battling currents and looming Arctic darkness, he deftly steered the ROV toward the wreck to get stunning video from the vehicle’s high-resolution camera. He had to be extremely careful not to collide with the wreck, more to protect the integrity of the historic site than to avoid damaging the ROV.
Surveyors also used LiDAR, or laser technology that creates incredibly detailed images from the air and on land.
Douglas Stenton, Nunavut’s director of heritage, and Robert Park, a University of Waterloo archeology professor also used LiDAR to map the crucial discovery of pieces of a wooden deck plug from a Franklin Expedition ship.
They borrowed the expensive equipment from S. Brooke Milne, an anthropology professor at the University of Manitoba, to field test it during about of month of mapping archeology sites. LiDAR images give the archeologists an exquisitely detailed map of site surfaces so they can detect even the slightest impact of tourism on Nunavut’s heritage. It proved essential when two pieces of a deck plug from one of the Franklin Expedition ships was found on land last week, a discovery that lead to the historic find of the sunken wreck.
Some of the most cutting-edge devices deployed in the search were made by Canadian firms.
They include Arctic Explorer, an autonomous underwater vehicle, or robot sub, more than seven metres long. It was built by International Submarine Engineering Ltd. in Port Coquitlam, B.C. and carries state-of-the-art sonar. Deployed from HMCS Kingston far north of where the Franklin wreck was discovered, and closer to the last reported position of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the Arctic Explorer scans the seabed for hours at a time and returns on its own to the mother ship.
Bringing the different devices together in extreme Arctic conditions, and proving they can pay off against long odds, is one of the spinoff benefits of finding the 19th century shipwreck. “We always say, ‘The right tool for the right job,’” said Scott Youngblut, hydrographer-in-charge at the Canadian Hydrographic Service. “We take all sorts of different technology and match it up to the particular conditions we’re in.”