A Canadian team has discovered the remains of one of two lost ships from the doomed Arctic expedition of Capt. Sir John Franklin in the Arctic’s Queen Maud Gulf. The vessels, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were on an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage when they were lost with 129 men on board. On his fourth expedition, ice beset Lord Franklin’s ships during the winter of 1846 and had not set them free by the spring of 1848, after carrying them hundreds of miles as the ice moved and shifted due to wind and current. The crew died of starvation and lead poisoning from their food provision tins.
Following the tragedy, many vessels were lost searching for the ships with the hope of an Admiralty reward. In 2008, Canadian search teams funded by the Canadian government began using state-of-the-art technology to locate the lost vessels. This year, seven vessels and robotic underwater craft provided by the Canadian government represented the largest mission to locate the missing ships since a series of search operations were launched in the decade after 1848.
The Canadian teams initially began searching an area north of Victoria Strait based on artifacts found on the shore. Early ice conditions pushed the team south to Queen Maud Gulf where a helicopter that ferried searchers found a rusting iron fitting with Royal Navy markings on a barren shore. Using the same robotic search technology recently employed in an attempt to locate Malaysian Airlines flight MH-370 lost in the South Pacific, the well-preserved wreck was located in about 36 feet of water.
Marty Klein, founder of L3 Klein Associates and one of the inventors of side scan sonar technology, said, “This find ranks as one of the most important shipwrecks ever found with the help [of] side scan sonar, including RMS Titanic, USS Monitor, Hamilton & Scourge, H.L. Hunley, HMS Mary Rose, the African Boy shipwreck and the Lake George Radeau.”
While it is still not clear which of the two ships has been found, archaeologists believe that it belonged to the expedition. Artifacts from the expedition have been found over the years, but until this latest discovery there has been no sign of either vessel. Final confirmation of the vessel’s identity will come after divers are able to return with more evidence.
Sonar imaging has lead researchers to believe that the wreckage is relatively well preserved.
If the vessels are confirmed to have belonged to the Franklin expedition, it will not only solve a mystery, but will also be crucial to Canada’s Arctic claims. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expedition, which took place nearly 170 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
Canada began searching for the ships in 2008 as it sought to establish sovereignty over the disputed waters of the Northwest Passage. Today, the melting polar ice has finally opened the route to shipping — the route that Franklin’s doomed expedition originally sought.