ABOARD CCGS SIR WILFRID LAURIER - Underwater archeologists made their first dive on the newly discovered Franklin Expedition shipwreck Wednesday, raising hopes the world will soon know the historic vessel’s identity.
“The most incredible thing we’ve ever seen,” Marc-Andre Bernier, head of Parks Canada’s underwater archeology team and 25-year veteran of diving on wrecks, said after more than eight hours at the site.
But the archeologists, who were diving in frigid water at 1 C, aren’t ready to reveal what they saw and photographed during a full day of exploring the site.
They want time to consider what they’ve learned, and maybe dive again if the weather is good, before announcing any conclusions.
Wednesday’s dive followed days of anxious waiting as gale-force winds roiled the High Arctic seas where the Franklin wreck was discovered early this month, 166 years after HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were given up to the ice.
Shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday, Laurier crew members lowered the Parks Canada team’s survey and dive boat Investigator into eastern Queen Maud Gulf.
Their course to the Franklin shipwreck was kept secret to make it more difficult for potential looters to find the underwater site, in shallow waters around 11 metres deep off the shore of a remote island.
The area is northwest of Adelaide Peninsula, part of mainland Canada.
Inuit oral history gathered in the early decades after Franklin and his men perished suggests a few survivors may have lived for a time off Erebus or Terror, far south of where the ships were reported abandoned.
The current Parks Canada-led effort to find and explore the Franklin wrecks began in 2008.
At a ceremony Tuesday in Ottawa’s Rideau Hall, almost 200 people in seven federal departments were honoured for the historic breakthrough.
Parks Canada vice-president Andrew Campbell received the rare special recognition on behalf of collaborators, including the Coast Guard, the Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Canadian Ice Service, from Clerk of the Privy Council Wayne G. Wouters, who heads the civil service.
The citation quoted British Franklin expert William Battersby’s claim that it’s “the biggest archeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb almost 100 years ago.”
Speculation is rife around the world about the identity of the sunken ship. But the underwater archeologists say they want to be methodical in their study of it before announcing whether it’s Erebus or Terror.
Solving that riddle is more than just a parlour game for maritime history buffs.
Knowing which of Franklin’s two ships ended up more than 100 kilometres south of where the crew left them in heavy ice in 1848 is just the start of a new chapter in a story that has been unfolding for some 170 years.
Franklin and his 128 men set off in 1845 to find the western exit of the Northwest Passage, which the British Admiralty sought as a shorter route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
Everyone in the expedition died. It was the worst disaster the Royal Navy suffered during its long exploration of the Arctic.
Experts have sifted through scattered pieces of evidence for generations to find signs of lead poisoning, botulism, scurvy and even cannibalism, all clues to why no one survived.
But no theory has settled the debate about why all the men perished. Archeologists hope to discover more answers underwater.
Finding the wreck so far south vindicated at least some Inuit oral history dating back to the mid-19th century. But it’s possible the ship’s voyage south wasn’t uninterrupted or even by accident.
Inuit described seeing a ship drifting with the sea ice.
If the vessel got caught up long enough for Inuit to board, and then began drifting again, that raises new questions about how Inuit interacted with the dying sailors and at least one of their ships.
There’s an intriguing clue to another possibility in the 1879 expedition of U.S. army Lt. Frederick Schwatka, drawn by whalers’ stories of white men living on the Arctic ice.
He didn’t find any, but heard of Inuit encounters with white men who had come on a three-masted ship to a spot near the Adelaide Peninsula, which juts north from the mainland into eastern Queen Maud Gulf.
The Laurier was anchored northwest of the peninsula on Wednesday.
Schwatka heard claims that Inuit had seen tracks of three or four white men in spring snow, apparently hunting deer, near Smith Point and Grant Point on the Adelaide Peninsula.
When an Inuit man boarded the ship, “he saw a pile of dirt on one side of the cabin door showing that some white men had neatly swept out the cabin,” Schwatka wrote.
“He found on board the ship four red tin cans filled with meat and many that had been opened.”
If survivors of Franklin’s expedition somehow managed to sail south, perhaps they were the final holdouts, struggling to find a way to safety.
Or maybe they went rogue as scurvy, lead poisoning and excruciating cold addled the desperate sailors’ minds.
The answers to that mystery may lie in the icy depths.