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The Underwater Archaeology Search for Franklin's Lost Vessels: HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site

Past Expeditions

August 2011 Search Expedition to find Franklin’s ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

Sir John Franklin’s two lost ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, are designated together as a national historic site of Canada – the only such ‘undiscovered’ national historic site – due to the importance of Franklin’s voyage and his ships to the history of Arctic navigation and exploration.  The discovery of either or both wrecks, or their contents, will offer unprecedented information on the search for the Northwest Passage, the exploration of Canada’s North and the fate of Sir John Franklin.  HMS Erebus, HMS Terror and their crew are also a testament to the history shared between Canada and Great Britain.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror also have historical and cultural significance for local Inuit who speak of the ships in their oral history. The expedition team and Inuit have worked closely together in conducting research and planning for this search as it is believed that Inuit oral history and research could hold the key to the ultimate discovery of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

In 2008, Parks Canada and its Underwater Archaeology Service (UAS) initiated a three-year project in collaboration with the Canadian Hydrographic Service with the support of the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) and Government of Nunavut. An initial expedition in 2008 achieved the survey of a 65 km-long approach corridor leading from the main navigation channel through largely uncharted waters to an archaeological target area near O’Reilly Island, located west of the Adelaide peninsula and where Inuit oral tradition situates one of the wrecks. In the second field season in 2010, this corridor provided safe navigation access for the support vessel and enabled the successful survey of approximately 150 sq km from two smaller survey launches.

This August, the UAS led a third archaeological expedition in Nunavut to search for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The expedition again proved to be a collaborative effort, with the inclusion of new organizations: the University of Victoria’s Ocean Technology Laboratory (UVic) and the Canadian Ice Service (CIS). This collaboration brought a breadth of expertise and new information, adding to the growing body of research on the ships’ fate. The survey was once again staged from the CCG Ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier with archaeologists working alongside Canadian Hydrographic Service’s hydrographers over the course of a 6-day dedicated effort.

The 2011 search for the Franklin vessels shifted northward from the O’Reilly Island area to Victoria Strait where one of the vessels is thought to have foundered. This new area was a priority for the Canadian Hydrographic Service and CCG in their mandate to promote the safety of shipping though the principal navigation corridors of the Canadian Arctic, and Parks Canada was able to take advantage of this opportunity to embark on the search for the second vessel. Collectively, the Canadian Hydrographic Service and Parks Canada were able to systematically survey 140 square km of previously uncharted waters in Canada’s Arctic, while bringing Canada closer to solving the mystery of the final resting ground of Franklin’s vessels.

In addition to technologies already deployed which included side-scan sonar and multi-beam bathymetry, the search enlisted LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), as contracted by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. This bathymetry sonar is operated from an aircraft as opposed to being deployed from a boat, and although its primary use is for charting the seabed, this technology can detect a shipwreck. This technology provides water depths and is useable in shallow waters (usually less than 40 m) where it is difficult to operate boats, especially in uncharted waters. It also has the capability of covering large areas in a relatively short period of time, which will increase the survey area coverage quite significantly once the data has been compiled. Results from the LiDAR will need to be analyzed by the archaeology team over the next several months.

As in 2008, an archaeologist from the Government of Nunavut joined the survey team to investigate potential shore remains in the area that may be related to the Franklin expedition. Covering approximately 25 km of shoreline on the northeast area of the Royal Geographical Society Islands, the archaeologists also made a brief visit to Cape Felix, the northernmost point of King William Island, where Franklin had set up an observatory. This site was first documented by Lt. Hobson of the 1859 McClintock Expedition and only briefly visited since then. Parks Canada is proud to also have been working with the support of the Gjoa Haven Community and the Inuit Heritage Trust.

The search for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror is made more challenging by the vastness of the Canadian Arctic and the harsh conditions that are frequently encountered in northern waters. It is also complicated by differing accounts of the fate of Franklin’s ships as preserved in Inuit traditional knowledge, and the many interpretations given to these accounts on the possible resting place of the wrecks. A number of attempts to locate HMS Erebus and HMS Terror have been unsuccessful to date but an increasing area of the seafloor has been systematically ruled out, thus narrowing the search.

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed in August 1997 between Great Britain, as owner of the vessels, and Canada, as the nation in whose water they were lost. If and when they are found, the MOU assigns control over site investigation, excavation or recovery of either wrecks or their contents to Canada. Mandated to protect and present subjects of national significance, Parks Canada is the responsible federal agency for the search and subsequent preservation of the vessels.

The Government of Canada is the proud steward of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site of Canada, and is working with the Government of Nunavut and Qikiqtani Inuit Association towards the creation of a national marine conservation area in Lancaster Sound at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage.

Itinerary and Logistics for the Search for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror:

When:  survey was held from August 21-26; transit time extended the dates to August 9-30
Where:  Erebus Bay, Victoria Strait, Royal Geographical Islands, Nunavut