The Star with the Franklin search – How the Franklin wreck was finally found (9 September 2014)

ABOARD CCGS SIR WILFRID LAURIER — Like all great discoveries, they found the Franklin Expedition shipwreck by accident, after years of gruelling, monotonous work.

For 166 years, people have wondered where the Royal Navy’s HMS Erebus and HMS Terror went after they sailed into the Northwest Passage in search of the western exit, only to disappear, losing all 129 men aboard.

Witness accounts from Inuit who spoke to early searchers in the 19th century offered tantalizing clues of at least one ghost ship, with a big, dead white man aboard, drifting south on the ice.

They claimed it was far from the point where an 1847 ink note, concealed in a tin can, reported the ships had been abandoned, imprisoned in heavy ice. Many so-called experts thought it was hogwash. The Inuit had to be telling tall tales.

Turns out the Inuit were right all along.

But it took more than a century of searching, and a serendipitous series of events over the past several weeks, to prove it.

First, the heaviest Arctic sea ice in years had to block a flotilla of seven vessels, including smaller survey boats that carry high-tech submersibles — the largest mission ever assembled to search for Erebus and Terror.

Unable to group together in what looked like the more promising northern search zone in Erebus Bay, government and privately funded vessels had to spend more time south of Victoria Strait.

They kept cursing the ice.

Then a federal hydrographer charting the seabed had to offer helicopter seats to two archeologists working for the Nunavut government.

That way fate, and a Transport Canada pilot assigned to the Coast Guard, could deliver them to one barren Arctic island out of thousands.

And then that pilot, who took an interest in old things as he watched archeologists pick up artifacts over the years, had to do as they’d taught him.

While walking the perimeter in a neon orange dry suit and red tasselled toque, he kept his eyes to the grassless ground.

That’s why chopper pilot Andrew Stirling found the one critical clue that had eluded generations of searchers, and finally pointed archeologists to the sunken wreck from Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition.


He waved to Park to come over. Stenton followed. Stirling showed them the piece of iron which, as taught, he hadn’t touched.

“As soon as I saw it, I knew it was different than anything we’d ever seen before in terms of its size and its very clear shape,” Stenton said.

Holding it in his left hand, Stenton said it was a shame there weren’t any broad arrows on the iron, the Royal Navy’s mark on its property.

“The heel of my hand was covering it,” Stenton said. “I opened my hand and there was not one broad arrow, but two broad arrows on it, stamped into the iron. And the number 12.

“So that was very exciting. We knew then that this was a Royal Navy fitting. We just went, ‘Wow. Fantastic.’”


Farther along the beach, Stirling found half-moon-shaped pieces of wood, about 30 centimetres in diameter. One was weathered grey, lying amid some rocks. Another piece, the same shape and size, was nearby. Large iron nails, forged by hand, were sticking out.

Again, he called the archeologists over.

At first, Stenton thought it might be from a cask. After talking to the marine experts, the land archeologists believe it’s more likely that the wooden pieces, which fit together, form a hawse plug.

It would have closed the hole in the deck where the anchor chain ran through into a lower locker to keep the sea out.

They brought the objects back to the Laurier’s archeology lab, where Ryan Harris, 42, and Jonathan Moore, 45, both senior underwater archeologists at Parks Canada in Ottawa, examined the objects that night.

The metal object, likely part of a davit used to lower one of several boats that Erebus and Terror carried, was a rusted piece of iron about 43 centimetres long, shaped like a large tuning fork with rounded tips.

It weighs about 4.5 kilograms, which makes it “the sort of artifact that wouldn’t be carried far, given its heft,” Harris said. “So it was a pretty good indication that we were in the right neighbourhood.”


The underwater archeologists soon put their survey and diving boat, Investigator, in the water to look for a wreck near the island, using a side-scan sonar towfish pulled on an armoured cable.

Before long, a telltale hit a few centimetres long appeared on the laptop computer screen as live images of the ice-scarred seabed scrolled by.

Technologist Chriss Ludin, 61, of Ottawa, had just handed the helm over to technician Joe Boucher, 33, also of Ottawa.

Harris and Moore, who normally work parallel searches on separate boats, were watching the same sonar feed this time.

"That’s it,” Harris said as the elusive shipwreck appeared. Like a winning sprinter, he raised two open hands.

"It wasn’t quite a primal scream," Moore said, "but it was close. There were high tens all around."

Once Bernier had confirmed the find, the next step was to get a remotely operated vehicle with high-resolution cameras down for a good look at the shipwreck.

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Sunken ship