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How the Franklin Ships Were Found

In 1845, Sir John Franklin commanded the HMS Erebus and Terror in search of an elusive Northwest Passage. The two ships disappeared into the ice, sparking a 166-year-long search. How one of the greatest mysteries of our time was finally cracked.

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How the Franklin Ships Were FoundPhoto: Thierry Boyer/Parks Canada

This is a story about ice. The tale of the catastrophic British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition has always been about ice. For all the mystery that obscures the calamities and ruinous decisions that ended in the deaths of Sir John Franklin and 129 British sailors in 1848, as well as the disappearance of a pair of 30-metre-long ships, the influence of ice has remained the certainty.

The 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition to find HMS Erebus and HMS Terror was itself beset by ice-slowed down, pushed off course and very nearly defeated by it. The expedition had a fleet of vessels armed with the world’s best sunken-wreck-finding technology, but extreme conditions quickly dampened spirits and scattered ships.

In the end, the only thing more powerful than the ice was something Franklin himself could have used: good fortune. It was something the Parks Canada team, hunting for his wrecks since 2008, had long hoped for.

On August 26, 2014, at midday, the last men and women to join the Victoria Strait Expedition come aboard the polar cruise ship One Ocean Voyager. About two dozen researchers and tourists load into black Zodiacs and are ferried from a foggy shore on Cornwallis Island, Nunavut, to what will be their floating quarters for the next two weeks.

“Can you imagine if we find those ships?” is heard more than once in their chatter. None of these passengers will operate the sonar technology stowed on board, but many have paid to be there when it’s happening.

The Voyager’s course is set for one of the expedition’s primary search areas: on maps, a tidy rectangle in the Victoria Strait, for which this year’s expedition is named. Here, off the coast of King William Island, is where the ice claimed Franklin and his ships. A note left by some of his crewmen in a cairn of stones places the ships’ abandonment nearby.

The second search zone is the Queen Maud Gulf, some 50 kilometres south. Before launching its renewed effort to locate Erebus and Terror in 2008, Parks Canada consulted with Inuit oral history expert Louie Kamookak. He pointed to the section of the gulf around Umiaqtalik, which means “the old ship place,” where Inuit testimony places an unmanned ship among the islands.

The Inuit named the features of their land to alert one another to potential dangers, food sources and the history of the places. European explorers named Arctic sites for patrons, fellow explorers and monarchs. Even when you combine the two sets of names, the overwhelming majority of islands in the Queen Maud Gulf have no name at all.

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It is among these islands that Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists aboard the research vessel Martin Bergmann are watching the sea floor scroll past on a pair of monitors. They raise and lower the towfish (a sonar unit that trails behind the ship) as the depth of the sea demands. The towfish scans for 100 metres on each side. Surveying any section of seabed requires pulling it in a straight line, then moving 150 metres sideways and running parallel to the strip again, and then repeating that pattern-over and over.

The Prince Edward Islanders on the Bergmann call it “planting potatoes.” Everyone agrees it is a mind-numbing task. The ocean floor in the Queen Maud Gulf is mostly a mix of gravel and sand, so the images that scroll past on the monitors are a stream of colourless noise.

“There’s more sand down there than there is on [New Brunswick’s] Parlee Beach,” says Royal Canadian Navy diver Yves Bernard. “Watching paint dry is exciting in comparison. Every time I get ready for a shift, I tell myself this is it-this is the time I’m going to see the ship on that screen.”

Back aboard the Voyager, the Canadian Ice Service’s 4 p.m. updates are the most anxiously awaited news. Most days, the captain and crew scrutinize the charts on the bridge while passengers examine the colour-coded sea-ice concentrations on the projector screen in the lounge.

Victoria Strait has remained overwhelmingly, unseasonably clogged with ice-90 per cent non-navigable without an icebreaker.

A fragment of hope lies in the fact that, as Tom Zagon from the Canadian Ice Service comments in an August 29 email, “most of the ice in the area is close to disintegrating…. The high-sea state brought about by easterly winds is helping to break up the remaining ice cover.”

But then the winds die. By the even­ing of August 30, the breeze is less than 19 kilometres an hour. A minimum of 46 sustained kilometres an hour is needed to even begin sweeping the offending ice away.

The Voyager’s next few days are a purgatory, spent testing equipment and chasing open water instead of hunting shipwrecks. It picks its way north toward Erebus and Terror’s point of abandonment, shuddering as large floes crack against its hull. The Grey Lady, its nimble, rigid-hull inflatable boat, returns from reconnaissance missions without leads.

It takes a helicopter, flying north to aid the discouraged Voyager team, to spy a line of ice-free ocean large enough for its researchers to try out their sonar-scanning autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), the Arctic Explorer. The equipment is ideal for probing deep, cold waters, but conditions constrain the search area to a fraction of what they hoped
to cover.

“When we can get this technology in the water, all of our images are crisp,” says David Shea, engineering manager for Kraken Sonar Systems Inc., the company that designed the synthetic aperture sonar carried by the AUV. “In our surveys in Rhode Island Sound, we could tell the difference between styles of lobster traps.” But the plan is frustrated by near-ubiquitous pans of ice.

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Meanwhile, another one of the expedition’s ships, the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier, is scanning the seabed down in the southern “Plan B” search box. The crew had tried to push into the northern search area but was blocked by the ice.

Not far away, underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris is napping peacefully in the bow of Parks Canada’s Investigator, a boat that sits on the deck of the Laurier when it’s not in the water. His feet are propped against the port side. His head rests on a life jacket that he’s wedged against the side of the ship.

He awakes and groggily walks into the Investigator’s cramped cabin, reiterating the need to install a Keurig coffee maker on board. Then he takes over the sonar screen from his archaeologist colleague Jonathan Moore and stares intently at the ocean floor.

But as in every preceding day, the ocean yields no signs of Erebus or Terror. Harris trades shifts at the screen with Moore until the sun goes down.

Both men are unhappy that the Victoria Strait is choked up with ice. “That’s a whole year of planning, gone. Just like that,” says Moore, who is looking a little choked up himself.

“It’s hard not to think of what Franklin and his men were facing back in the winters of 1846 to 1848, when they were beset,” says Harris. “It’s possible that Erebus and Terror were caught in a similar situation to what we’re seeing this year. The channel they were navigating could have frozen over in just a few days, then stayed that way for several years. Tom Zagon has shown us examples of historical satellite imagery where exactly that has happened.”

Harris and Moore have been coming to the Queen Maud Gulf for six summers without making any significant finds, working tirelessly but fruitlessly. They don’t know it yet, but that’s all about to change.

On September 1, the day’s operations start out unremarkably. The team on the Laurier from the Canad­ian Hydrographic Service sets a GPS beacon on one of Queen Maud Gulf’s unnamed islands to help improve the precision of its nautical charts. Archaeologists from the Government of Nunavut and the University of Waterloo have tagged along. During the flight, a tent ring is spotted on the island, its provenance unknown.

After scanning the area by air to make sure there are no bears to threaten the researchers’ safety,
Canadian Coast Guard helicopter pilot Andrew Stirling joins them on land. He takes to the shore in search of signs of the Franklin expedition or any other items of interest.

Stirling helps out the archaeologists, and Douglas Stenton, director of heritage for the Government of Nunavut Department of Culture and Heritage, has taught him the basics of surveying. Stirling has shown a sharp eye. He’s picked out spearheads and other artifacts on past surveys, but they pale in comparison to the find he’s about to make.

Stirling walks near the water’s edge, scanning for anything that stands out, when he spots a half-metre-long piece of rusted iron lying on the beach, half-caked in sand. He takes a closer look at the two-pronged fitting. It resembles an oversized bicycle fork.

“Doug [Stenton] had taught me that the Royal Navy stamped its parts with broad arrows,” Stirling says later, recalling this moment, “so I looked, but I didn’t see one.” Stirling calls out to the archaeologists, who rush to join him.

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Since Stirling found the object, the others encourage him to be the one to pick it up, assuring the reluctant pilot by joking that they won’t have him arrested for violating a Nunavut law that forbids the collection of artifacts without a permit.

Taking the item from Stirling, Stenton inspects it. As soon as he remarks that it’s too bad there aren’t any markings to identify it, he opens his hand and notices the broad arrows. “Great find!” he says.

With no other Royal Navy ships thought to be in the area, the arrows almost certainly mean the artifact came from one of Franklin’s ships. The unexpected find shifts the archaeologists’ focus toward the beach, and as they scour the sand, Stirling makes yet another find, this time two pieces of weathered wood with iron nails.

They’re onto something big.

That evening on the Laurier, Stenton shows his colleagues the best evidence of shipwreck material to be found on shore since the 1870s. Moore rushes to his room to pore over plans of Erebus and Terror on his computer. Not 30 minutes pass before he identifies the iron fitting as being part of a davit, a mechanism used to lift small boats on and off the deck of a ship.

“It was a big, heavy object, not likely something the Inuit would want to cart around,” Harris later recalls. “It seemed as though they might have snapped off the pointy bit for some practical use, with the rest cached for the future, but it wasn’t something that would have been transported any considerable distance. It gave us the impression that it was debris, possibly from a wreck, and probably nearby.”

Nearby are unfamiliar wat­ers. When Franklin led his men into Canada’s Arctic Archipelago in 1845, the intricacies of its coastline were scarcely known. Not much has changed since then. The navigable route of the Northwest Passage was established when explorer Roald Amundsen completed it in 1906, but even today, just 10 per cent of Canada’s Arctic waters have been mapped to modern standards. As the Investigator returns to the shores where Stirling made his Franklin find, it might be the first boat to ply these waters for decades.

Harris mans the sonar for the day’s first line before handing off screen duties to Moore. He doesn’t even have time to get comfortable before the excitement starts. “The bottom was coming up on us fast,” Moore says. “I called out to Ryan [Harris], thinking we were going to damage the towfish.”

Moore frantically reels in the $100,000 sonar unit, raising it off the sea floor. Harris peers over his colleague’s head. They are the only two men to have been a part of all of Parks Canada’s Franklin searches since 2008, now standing shoulder to shoulder.

Slowly, the rough outline of a ship begins to scroll into view. Over a century and a half have passed since Erebus slipped into the silence of the sea: it has one last quiet moment, then Harris makes the call.

“That’s it!” he cries. The two archaeologists high-five and embrace.

“That is it.”

On September 6, Marc-André Bernier, who serves as chief of Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service, receives a call on the Voyager over satellite phone. Casual observers hear that his presence is required on the Laurier, to deal with a “human resources issue.”

Were that true, it almost certainly would be the first-ever human resources issue necessitating the dispatch of a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker, a rigid-hull inflatable boat and a helicopter.

The day after their chief’s return to the Laurier, the Parks Canada Underwater Archaeology Service team is staring at high-definition footage. Kelp has grown up through the heaps of fallen lumber, but the wreck is magnificently preserved. Theirs are the first eyes to see Erebus in more than a century and a half. The aquamarine waters are murky, but the fate of the Franklin expedition has never been clearer.

© 2014 By Canadian Geographic. Canadian Geographic (December 2014)