Ice conditions keep Canadian divers from full exploration of Franklin wreck

Persistent ice off the Yukon and Alaskan coasts caused a three-week delay for Parks Canada

Unexpectedly intense ice conditions meant anxious archeologists had to limit their exploration of the two Franklin expedition shipwrecks earlier this month.

Persistent ice off the Yukon and Alaskan coasts caused a three-week delay for Parks Canada underwater archeologists just to access the wreck of HMS Erebus at its gravesite in shallow waters off the coast of King William Island in Nunavut.

The ice also meant they had to leave more than a week ahead of schedule, leaving them just a day and a half to explore the wreck or risk their research vessel being stuck in the ice — much like Sir John Franklin’s ships were more than a century and a half ago.

“This proved to be the worst ice conditions we have seen,” said Ryan Harris, a senior underwater archeologist with Parks Canada.

The team has been part of the Franklin work for more than a decade, ever since renewed efforts to find both HMS Erebus and HMS Terror began in 2007. Erebus was finally located in 2014 and the Terror in 2016.

The Franklin expedition has been one of the world’s most enduring mysteries after the two ships and their crews disappeared in the 1840s while trying to map the Northwest Passage. The two ships may hold the clues to finally tell exactly what happened to the expedition, but thus far they have given up few of their secrets.

Before this year, divers brought up 65 artifacts from Erebus including its bell, some dishes and part of a boot that contained DNA. Those 65 artifacts belong to the United Kingdom, which was the legal owner of both ships under international law because they were sailing under the British flag when they went missing.

However earlier this year Canada and the U.K. completed a negotiation for Canada and the Inuit to take joint ownership of the ships and the rest of their contents. It means the nine artifacts brought up this month are the first to be owned by Canada and the Inuit Heritage Trust.

This year’s artifacts, including a stoneware pitcher and a navigational tool, are now in a lab in Ottawa where they are being analyzed and tested for possible clues like DNA and then will be preserved for eventual display in a museum.

Terror has not been explored in much detail yet and this year’s plan to use tide and current gages to get a better understanding of the site was kiboshed by the bad weather. Terror was found about 24 metres under the surface of the water in Terror Bay, which was named in the ship’s honour 118 years ago even though nobody knew then the ship was hiding in the bay.

It’s location makes it more protected from elements and is in pristine condition with windows still intact and all interior spaces enclosed.

Erebus lies in about 12 metres of water and is more susceptible to storm swells that could damage it. In just the last year another part of the upper deck of Erebus fell away exposing deck beams and detaching from the hull.

That is one of the reasons exploring Erebus is a priority, but also makes diving in the various decks more risky. Erebus also was the ship upon which Franklin sailed and his cabin could contain a treasure trove of clues, including ship’s logs and captain’s journals. The dive team made it into the cabin of a junior officer on this year’s expedition but didn’t get to Franklin’s.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

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