Canadian archaeologists have found one of the Franklin expedition’s ships — lost since the Arctic explorers famously disappeared in 1846 — off of King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. The ship is either the HMS Erebus or the HMS Terror, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced on 9 September.
The discovery comes in the sixth year of expeditions led by Parks Canada, which has scoured hundreds of square kilometres of ocean bottom in search of the Franklin ships. A remotely operated vehicle (ROV) deployed from Parks Canada’s 10-metre survey vessel Investigator made the discovery on 7 September.
Days earlier, archaeologists working on land reported finding an iron fitting from a Royal Navy ship. It was a major clue that the search team was in the right area, farther south than some had expected but in line with where Inuit had reported seeing a shipwreck in the nineteenth century.
The team found the ship’s remains using underwater sonar, controlled from on board the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfred Laurier. A Toronto Star journalist aboard the vessel reported that when archaeologist Ryan Harris saw the sonar feed, he raised two open hands “like a winning sprinter”.
The ROV, a Saab Seaeye Falcon, carries a high-definition video camera that captured the wreck, resting with its bottom on the sea floor. Parks Canada says it is certain the ship belongs to the Franklin expedition, given its design.
John Franklin left England in May 1845 with 128 other men in the Erebus and Terror, aiming to find and explore a Northwest Passage. Both ships vanished. In 1859, searchers found a message in a cairn on King William Island reporting that Franklin and some of the crew had died while the ships were trapped in ice. The remaining men eventually abandoned ship and began walking south. Studies of bodies of various crew members, found in graves scattered across several islands, suggest that lead poisoning may have contributed to their deaths. Cut marks on some bones suggest cannibalism, again supporting Inuit accounts.
The Canadian government funded the bulk of the search along with several private partners. In recent years, oceanographers from Arctic nations have been mapping assiduously in the far north to help establish sovereignty over possible future oil and gas exploration in the region.
Even today, ships can run into trouble in the area. On 3 September, the Arctic Research Foundation’s vessel Martin Bergmann, which was taking part in the search, hit a previously unknown shoal and became grounded for about two-and-a-half hours.