Canada’s leader has started the largest ever search for the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Expedition, lost on a quest to locate an ice-free shipping route across the Arctic.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the statement on Thursday after visiting crew aboard the Martin Bergmann research vessel, which is leading the search for the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
Harper is on his seventh annual tour of Canada’s far north, which is set to end today.
“It is truly exciting to be launching this new initiative to continue searching for the lost vessels of the Franklin Expedition,” Harper said in a statement.
He said finding the two lost ships and solving the 170-year-old mystery surrounding their disappearance would “unlock the rich history of Canada’s Northwest Passage — a history that unites us all as Canadians.”
The two ships are together designated as a Canadian “undiscovered” national historic site. The expedition, as well as several missions sent by the British admiralty to try to find Franklin, ushered in an era of Arctic exploration and mapping.
Led by Parks Canada, the team of researchers will look in two areas: the Victoria Strait/Alexandra Strait region, where one of the vessels is thought to have foundered, as well as the southern region near O’Reilly Island, west of the Adelaide Peninsula and where Inuit oral tradition situates one of the wrecks. Over the next four to six weeks, weather permitting, they are to use sidescan sonar and multibeam bathymetry, as well as airborne technology used to acquire bathymetric data in shallow waters, satellite imagery and an autonomous underwater vehicle equipped with similar remote-sensing equipment.
On May 19, 1845, the British Royal Navy ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror departed Greenhithe, England on a much-heralded Arctic expedition in search of a Northwest Passage, with a total crew of 134 officers and men. Two European whaling vessels last encountered them in August 1845, when Franklin was waiting for an opportunity to cross Baffin Bay to Lancaster Sound.
After entering the eastern Arctic Archipelago later that season and enjoying initial success, the expedition soon began to fatally unravel. Except for occasional encounters with local Inuit, the crew was never seen alive again.
A somber message left at a heap of stones on Victory Point, King William Island, revealed that both ships had become trapped in ice in late 1846. The message was found in 1859.
After Franklin and several others perished, 105 remaining survivors recorded their intention to proceed on foot in the direction of Back’s Great Fish River.