A 160-year-old mystery could be solved this summer as the search resumes to find the doomed ships of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition to discover the Northwest Passage.
The voyage was the demise of Franklin and the 128 men he took to the Canadian Arctic after the Royal Navy ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus he led became trapped in ice, where it is presumed they sank somewhere off Nunavut’s King William Island.
“We are continuing our search for an as yet undiscovered national historic site,” Environment Minister Peter Kent said Thursday in announcing the resumption of the search. “This is the year I hope we will solve one of the great mysteries in the history of Arctic exploration.”
The graves of Terror and Erebus are designated together as Canada’s only national historic site with no known location, as they are considered to be integral to the country’s northern history.
Kent said the resumption of the search will be on Aug. 21, if the weather co-operates.
Kent’s announcement was attended by British High Commissioner Andrew Pocock and Parks Canada officials.
“The search for these historic vessels by Parks Canada does not date from this year or the last couple of years, we’ve been involved since 1997,” Marc-Andre Bernier, Parks Canada’s chief of underwater archeology said. “We’ve been looking for these wrecks for a long time. It’s really a historical quest to (find them).”
In the past 160 years, there have been several attempts to find Terror and Erebus, the first in January 1850 when HMS Investigator and HMS Enterprise set out to locate Franklin.
Enterprise and Investigator became separated and, in 1851, the latter was locked in ice, much like the ships it was sent to locate. The crew of the Investigator abandoned ship and eventually were rescued by another British vessel after four winters in the Arctic.
In July, there will be a dive to the wreck of Investigator — off Banks Island, N.W.T. — where it finally sank in 1854.
Parks Canada found the vessel last summer using side-scan sonar technology at the bottom of the bay, now a part of Aulavik National Park.
If Erebus and Terror were to be discovered this summer, it would be an achievement for archeology. “It would close one chapter of Canadian history. It would answer the questions that have existed over the centuries, the uncertainty over exactly where (Terror and Erebus) ultimately foundered and sank,” Kent said.
Interest in the vessels is not exclusive to Canada. According to Pocock, there is “genuine historical interest” in the United Kingdom, as well.
“Franklin was a considerable figure in Arctic exploration,” he said. “We’ve been looking for Franklin for 160 years.”
While Pocock said the dive on Investigator would be of interest, the real prize would be finding Franklin’s vessel. “The ships themselves were quite well-known — there are two volcanoes in Antarctica called Erebus and Terror,” Pocock said. The volcanoes were named by British Antarctic explorer Sir John Clark Ross, when he captained the ships in exploration of the frozen south in the early 1840s.
“Their profile and reputation — if that’s the right word — are rather higher than the Investigator.”
Should the three-year search by Parks Canada and the government of Nunavut for Franklin’s fabled expedition comes up short, it will not be considered a failure.
“Every expedition that we do actually helps us to get closer (to finding the wreckage). We see it as a contribution to the effort to find them,” Bernier said.
Even if Terror and Erebus aren’t found, the search would be narrowed further: next time, the team will know where not to look.
Dives on Investigator will take place from July 10 to 25, assuming the weather is favourable.
From The Vancouver Sun