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

Victoria Strait Expedition

This summer, an unprecedented number of organizations from the public, private and non-profit sectors will collaborate on a series of complementary research projects in Canada's Arctic. The search for artifacts from the 1845 Sir John Franklin expedition is certain to attract the interest of the general public. Of much greater overall value, however, is the wealth of important scientific information that will be collected in Canada's most remote region. By working together and deploying the latest technologies, the partners will deepen our understanding of the Arctic—and of working in the Arctic—in a cost-effective, efficient, and productive manner. The Project will also deliver tangible benefits to Northern communities.

For more than 150 years, expeditions sent to the Canadian Arctic in an attempt to learn the fate of the Franklin expedition have increased our knowledge of one of the world's most remote and unforgiving environments. The 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition is the most ambitious to date, with more partners and more sophisticated technologies than ever before striving to achieve a number of strategic goals. The use of multiple platforms has the potential to significantly increase the amount of Arctic seabed mapped this summer. Ice and weather conditions permitting, the team could exceed significantly the amount of ocean floor scanned and mapped during any previous expedition.

Four ships will serve as the main platforms: the Canadian Coast Guard's CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Royal Canadian Navy's HMCS Kingston, the Arctic Research Foundation's research vessel Martin Bergmann, and One Ocean Expeditions' One Ocean Voyager. In addition, a number of additional vessels (two Canadian Hydrographic Survey launches, CSL Kinglett and CSL Gannet, and Parks Canada's research vessel Investigator), along with autonomous and remote-controlled underwater vehicles, will be utilized. Together, these platforms, vessels and vehicles will enable the teams to deploy high-resolution multi-beam sonar and side-scan sonar in a carefully choreographed effort to survey and map the seabed while searching for evidence of Franklin's lost ships.

Four general themes effectively capture the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition.

1) Story of Canada

Northern exploration is as important and relevant today as it was when Franklin's ships set sail in 1845.

As part of upholding the honour of the British Crown, Franklin's mission was to find and map a navigable passage westward through the unknown waters of the Arctic. Although Canada would not become a country for several decades, the courage and adventurous spirit of Franklin and his crew have continued to fire the imaginations of people around the world. The voyage also served to establish Canada's early reputation as a northern and untamed land: a rugged landscape of ice and cold, and hardy and adventurous peoples. Historical records and archaeological evidence stand to reveal additional information about early relations between the English explorers, the Inuit and other Aboriginal peoples.

While technologies and survival skills have grown more sophisticated over time, Canada's Arctic remains a challenging environment and a relatively unknown region. More ships travel in the region than ever before, despite the lack of comprehensive hydrographic surveys and nautical charting beyond the main shipping corridors. The Northwest Passage remains alluring to shipping companies, as it offers a shorter route between Europe and the Far East than those currently in use. In September 2013, an ice-strengthened, 225-metre ship became the first bulk carrier to transit the Northwest Passage commercially. Most of the Arctic waters that Franklin sailed in have yet to be surveyed and charted, however. The increasing amount of maritime traffic is driving the need for modern hydrographic surveys and nautical charts to decrease the risk of groundings, loss of life and environmental damage.

The North promises to play an even larger role in Canada's story in the coming decades. International demand for resources, combined with new technologies that make developing those resources in a responsible manner more feasible than ever before, continues to attract the attention of investors from around the world. Northerners, including Aboriginal peoples—who comprise the majority of the population in two of the three territories—have a larger say in these projects than ever before, thanks to a series of devolution and land-claim agreements. And through its Northern Strategy, the Government of Canada continues to exercise Canada's sovereignty over the Arctic and make targeted investments in social and economic development, including projects to build a permanent Arctic research station and a deep-water port.

The Victoria Strait Expedition speaks to both the past and the future of the North, and brings both into perspective. Recovering artifacts from the Franklin expedition sheds new light on the search for the Northwest Passage, on the Arctic environment and on early contact between Inuit and Europeans. During the 2014 expedition, the archaeological team from Nunavut will reinter the remains and conduct additional surveys and analyses of the sites.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society (RCGS) will play a lead role in connecting the Victoria Strait Project to Canadians and geography enthusiasts from around the world. As Canada's center for exploration, and leading proponent for geoliteracy in the country, the RCGS will inform and educate Canadians about this year's expedition, how it creates new opportunity to solve the great Canadian mystery, and how the search for Franklin's lost ships have impacted our shared Northern heritage and history.

To accomplish this, the RCGS will build and manage a rich, interactive website, complete with maps, information on all the partners and logistical challenges, captains' logs and more. RCGS will also leverage its communications properties, including Canadian Geographic and Géographica, to help chart the course of the expedition, and share results with its broad readership body. Further, through its national education program, Canadian Geographic Education, the RCGS will leverage its network of over 11,000 educators, by creating trilingual (English, French, Inuktituk) educational material and classroom activities about the expedition, the history of the Franklin search, and Canada's more broad Arctic history, to be shared in classrooms from coast-to-coast-to-coast.

With the strong support of its partners, including The W. Garfield Weston Foundation, One Ocean Expeditions, Shell Canada and the Arctic Research Foundation, the RCGS will develop and disseminate an enhanced educational program to Canadian schools, so that educators and students can develop a stronger knowledge base and engagement with the Arctic and how it has shaped Canadian history

2) Safety and security

A vast and remote region with a harsh climate, Canada's Arctic is both hazardous and fragile. The ability to navigate these waters is crucial to both safety and security, and this summer's Project will contribute to this goal. The hydrographic and seabed data collected this summer by the Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS, part of Fisheries and Oceans Canada) will significantly expand our knowledge of maritime hazards, helping to maintain and expand navigable routes. The CHS will use the data to create and publish the navigational charts mariners need to navigate Arctic waters as safely as possible.

Each year, Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers, including CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, travel through the Arctic waters to maintain hundreds of marine aids to navigation (beacons, buoys and other devices) and to escort commercial ships and other vessels when called upon. Canadian Coast Guard ships provide icebreaking and ice-management services, maintain shipping channels, support marine search and rescue, and lead or monitor pollution-response incidents.

Several ships, including HCMS Kingston and the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, patrol Arctic waters for parts of each summer. These voyages, along with regular military exercises and operations, help to expand Canada's capacity to protect and patrol the North.

3) Arctic Research and Technology

Arctic Research

As a strong and generous supporter of scientific research in the North, The W. Garfield Weston Foundation is a valuable partner in the Victoria Strait Project. A catalyst for the partnership's participation in this summer's search, the Foundation will collaborate with and support the Royal Canadian Geographical Society to support frontline research and create and distribute educational materials that will bring stories of Canada's North to students across the country. In recent years, the Foundation has helped address the gap in discovery research in the North and is now one of the largest private supporters of northern research in Canada. The Foundation provides prestigious awards and fellowships to leading Canadian scientists, and enables northern research stations to offer critical support for field research.


Canada continues to showcase its innovation, and continues to develop the tools, techniques and capacity needed to gather, interpret and apply knowledge about the Arctic.

Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), an agency of the Department of National Defence, is involved in some of the new technologies that will be used in this year's expedition. The Arctic Explorer, for instance, is an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) made by International Submarine Engineering Ltd of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, and equipped with high-resolution synthetic aperture sonar made by Kraken Sonar Systems Inc of St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, and an acoustic homing-system made by Omnitech Incorporated of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. This new technology adds to Canada's achievements in the areas of glaciology and ice movement, and navigation. This year, DRDC will also conduct a series of experiments on the performance of sonar-imaging technologies in extremely low water temperatures.

Several other agencies will support the Victoria Strait Project by providing much needed scientific data. The Canadian Space Agency's renowned RADARSAT-2 satellite will provide satellite imagery of the areas, enabling another partner, the Canadian Ice Service, to analyze the type, extent and movement of sea ice.  The Canadian Space Agency will also provide other satellite-based data and analysis, including optical imagery of uncharted shorelines.

4) Supporting Northern Communities

Collaboration with Northern communities is another important facet of the Victoria Strait Project. Many of the partners will work with Northern communities to meet local needs.

Some partners will contribute directly: The Arctic Research Foundation is building and outfitting a dedicated artist's studio in Cambridge Bay, for example. Each year, the Foundation overwinters its ship off Cambridge Bay. This makes it among the first boats able to travel to other Arctic communities when the ice begins to break up. In recent years, ARF has helped Inuit quarry and transport local soapstone, the medium of choice for many carvers.

This year, the Arctic Research Foundation will also support a research project led by Queen's University to study the feasibility of an Inuit-operated commercial fishery based in Gjoa Haven. The project, known as the Queen Maud Gulf Exploratory Fisheries Program, promises to generate new knowledge about fish in the region, along with the impacts of current subsistence-fishing practices and a potential commercial fishery.

Another intriguing component of the Victoria Strait Project involves One Ocean Expeditions. A private Canadian tour operator founded in 2007, One Ocean runs several cruises through the Arctic each summer in a leased European scientific ship. One Ocean replaces the ship's scientific gear with Zodiacs and kayaks, hires experienced scientists, educators and guides—including interns from Nunavut Arctic College—and takes groups of up to 95 passengers at a time on once-in-a-lifetime journeys through the North. The trips are point-to-point; passengers fly into communities with landing strips, such as Resolute Bay, and are then ferried to the ship. One Ocean tours make multiple stops and generate significant revenues for local communities.

For the Victoria Strait Project, One Ocean will serve as a platform for 10 days, supporting the operation of Parks Canada's dive boat and AUV, DRDC's AUV, along with other equipment and crews.