Canadian scientists’ announcement Monday that they failed to find the final resting place of British naval hero Sir John Franklin deepened one of the most enduring mysteries of the Arctic.
In May 1845, Franklin set sail from England with 134 men aboard two ships, the Terror and Erebus, to search for the fabled Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. Five sailors left the ship in Greenland. The rest were never heard from again.
Last week, a six-man government survey team, supported by the Canadian Coast Guard vessel the Sir Wilfrid Laurier and its near 50-man crew, surveyed hundreds of square miles of frigid sea floor hoping to succeed where some 100 other expeditions failed—discovering the fate of the ships and a crew whose demise has been attributed to factors from lead poisoning to cannibalism.
For Canadians, the disappearance is “a Victorian gothic horror story that played out across the Arctic,” said Ryan Harris, a government archeologist who is leading this summer’s search.
Their government believes that locating the expedition’s resting place will bolster its sovereignty over the sea lane Franklin sought. Though the Franklin expedition was British, London has signed over caretaker rights to Canada.
Franklin, the veteran of two Arctic expeditions and the Battle of Trafalgar, was from a line of British explorers seeking a northern link to the Pacific. The then-global superpower kitted his ships with the latest technology, including a water-distillation system and heating.
On July 26, 1845, a whaler made a last sighting of Franklin’s ships as they hovered at one entrance into the Arctic. Experts believe the expedition journeyed on for more than a year, becoming trapped in ice off King William Island the next September.
Victorian England idolized explorers, and Franklin’s disappearance inspired plays, songs and a 12-year search. Financed mostly through Franklin’s wife and the British Navy, some 36 expeditions sought the lost crew.
Early searchers found the bodies of some sailors, some in formal graves that identified the crew members by name. They also recovered sailors’ possessions and other relics among native Inuits.
In 1859, a Royal Navy search party found a message under a cairn on King William Island that detailed how the crew had abandoned their ships after being trapped in ice for a year. Its writer said Franklin had died in 1847 and remaining crew would head to Back’s River, hundreds of miles to the south. The British gave up looking.
Canada’s search continues. In the 1960s, it has sent its army to look. Amateurs have put fortunes and lives on the line after catching what they call the “Franklin bug.”
At age 17, David Woodman packed hiking boots and a sleeping bag and headed north from his home in London, Ontario, to begin a search that has spanned 30 years and 10 expeditions. For the past three summers, he has remained in Vancouver, as he and other explorers say they have been unable to obtain government permits to search. Recently, Mr. Woodman bumped into members of the current expedition and tried to muscle in. “I told them, ‘I would come and wash socks,’ ” he said.
Louie Kamookak, an Inuk hunter raised in the region where the ships are believed to have disappeared, has been advising the Canadian government in their searches. He said his interest began when he was told by his great-grandmother of a silver teaspoon and grave she had seen when young, which he believed were Franklin expedition relics. Mr. Kamookak has been looking ever since.
Many mysteries remain. High levels of lead were found in sailor’s bodies, leading to theories that their deaths were hastened through poisoning from lead-sealed canned food or via the water-distillation system. Blade cuts on bones have been interpreted as a sign of Inuit attack; native testimony backs up claims of Inuit cannibalism.
But all theories have counterarguments. Even the note’s claim that the crew would break for Back’s River is disputed, given how far away it is.
One hope is to garner clues from the ship’s log, which Mr. Woodman and others believe would be sealed on a ship or in Franklin’s grave. Archeologists believe that if the wrecks are found they will be well preserved, given the depth they are expected to be submerged at will have protected them from the sea’s ebb and flow.
“There are thousands of theories to grasp onto the Franklin story, because we don’t really know what happened,” said Mr. Woodman.
Mr. Harris’s survey, working from Inuit testimony from the time, searched just east of O’Reilly Island, north of the Canadian mainland.
On Monday, Mr. Harris said they came back empty-handed, after scouring about half of the area they had pinpointed. His next trip, he said, would have to wait for another year.