Thursday, 29 July 2010

...and while we are in Canada

Franklin search vessel found in Arctic

Wed Jul 28, 8:50 PM
By Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

Arctic archaeologists have found the ship that forged the final link in the Northwest Passage and was lost in the search for the Franklin expedition.

The HMS Investigator, abandoned in the ice in 1853, is in shallow water in Mercy Bay along the northern coast of Banks Island in Canada's Western Arctic.

"The ship is standing upright in very good condition," Marc-Andre Bernier, Parks Canada's head of underwater archaeology, said Wednesday. "It's standing in about 11 metres of water.

"This is definitely of the utmost importance. This is the ship that sailed the last leg of the Northwest Passage."

On shore, not far from the wreck, are what scientists believe are the graves of three British sailors.

The disappearance of the Franklin expedition — considered the British admiralty's state of the art — provoked widespread public concern. Numerous British and American ships set sail in an attempt to find the HMS Erebus and the Terror, the vessels commanded by Sir John Franklin in his doomed search for the Northwest Passage in 1845.

None ever has.

Although some remains of the crew have been found, along with ghastly evidence of cannibalism among its starving crew, the fate of the Franklin expedition remains one of the Arctic's enduring mysteries and a recurring motif in Canadian song and story.

The search for Franklin and his men, however, contributed greatly to the understanding of the Arctic waters that Canada was eventually to claim as her own.

The Investigator made two voyages to try to solve the mystery. Its second, in 1850, was captained by Robert McClure. He sailed the Investigator around Cape Horn, up the west coast of North America to the Beaufort Sea and into the strait that now bears his name. He soon realized he was in the final leg of the Passage, but before he could return, the ship was blocked by pack ice and forced to overwinter in Prince of Wales Strait along the east coast of Banks Island.

The following summer, McClure tried again to sail to the end of the Passage, but was again blocked by ice. He steered the ship and crew into a large bay on the island's north coast he called the Bay of Mercy.

McClure and his men spent a total of three years trying to escape their icy dry dock, living on ship's stores and whatever they could harvest from the land. Finally, in the summer of 1853, they were rescued by the HMS Resolute.

The Investigator was abandoned. It was last seen, still stuck in the ice, in 1854.

"This is actually a human history," said Bernier. "Not only a history of the Passage, but the history of a crew of 60 men who had to overwinter three times in the Arctic, not knowing if they were going to survive."

The Parks Canada team arrived at Mercy Bay on July 22. Three days later, the ice on the bay cleared enough that researchers were able to deploy side-scanning sonar from a small inflatable boat over the site where they believed the wooden ship had eventually sunk.

Within 15 minutes, the Investigator was found.

"The ship had not moved too much from where it was abandoned," said Bernier.

The masts and rigging have long been sheared off by ice and weather. But the icy waters have preserved the vessel in remarkably good condition.

Environment Minister Jim Prentice is at the site and sailed overtop the sunken ship Tuesday night.

"It's incredible," he said from Mercy Bay. "You're actually able to peer down into the water and see not only the outline of the ship, but actually the individual timbers.

"To actually be on a Zodiac and look down into the water and see not just the outline of the ship but actually the ship itself and the timbers and all of the woodwork in immaculate detail was an indescribable experience.

"This ship has not been seen for 156 years. It's an incredible sight and it's a privilege to be here."

Prentice said the discovery by Canadian researchers emphasizes the fact that the Passage is a Canadian waterway, integral to Canada's history.

"It's an important find in that regard," he said.

"This vessel has been discovered here immediately adjacent to a Canadian national park. It's obviously an element of Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic."

As well as the ship, archaeologists have been uncovering a trove of artifacts on land left behind by the stranded sailors, who unloaded everything that was usable and portable before abandoning the Investigator.

The graves of three sailors thought to have died of scurvy have been marked off and will be left undisturbed, said Bernier.

The Investigator is also considered to be a significant part of aboriginal history. For years after the ship was abandoned, Inuvialuit hunters scavenged the site for valuable and rare bits of metal and wood.Even the nails were pulled out of one of the boats left behind.

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