ABOARD CCGS SIR WILFRID LAURIER - The long-lost Franklin wreck has so many stories to tell after some 160 years on the bottom that even seasoned underwater archeologists have trouble taking it all in.
The divers got their second close look Thursday, their last until next year at a site so rich in information and relics that they’re calling it an archeologists’ dream.
“This is going to rank as one of the biggest discoveries and studies in the field of underwater archeology,” said Marc-Andre Bernier, a 25-year veteran of diving on shipwrecks. He heads the Parks Canada team.
The archeologists won’t say if they think the wreck is HMS Erebus or HMS Terror. They insist on taking that, and every other step, slowly.
They want to methodically tease all the information they can from the vessel before offering answers to myriad questions.
One of the biggest is why Sir John Franklin and his 128 men all perished. Northern explorers before and after them suffered losses, but there were always survivors.
The underwater archeologists hope that if they listen carefully, the men’s ship will help say why.
After the Parks Canada divers’ first day studying her, when they got back above water, they were walking on air.
“Without a doubt, that is the most extraordinary shipwreck I have ever seen in my life,” beamed senior underwater archeologist Ryan Harris, 42, who has explored more than 100 shipwrecks.
Harris and Jonathan Moore, 45, were the first down on the Franklin site.
Before they could descend, the team dropped a marker, a 20-kilogram lead weight. The spot was chosen with sonar images that were position-fixed with GPS satellites.
They needed pinpoint accuracy to drop their marker into a clear zone close to the wreck, without damaging anything.
A yellow, braided nylon water rescue line ran from the marker on the seabed up to an orange buoy bobbing next to Investigator, the Parks Canada survey and dive boat.
It’s called a shot line and measures about 16 metres, allowing a bit of slack as tide and currents buffeted the buoy.
The wreck is about 11 metres underwater, near a remote island in eastern Queen Maud Gulf.
Ryan and Harris stride-jumped from Investigator’s stern swim platform into water that was 1C, inflating their red and black dry suits slightly with air from their scuba tanks to provide a bit of insulation.
Then they descended along the shot line, like a slowly free-falling skydiver, through a sea turned murky by a three-day Arctic gale. After letting some air out of their dry suits to reduce buoyancy, the divers were quickly on the seabed.
They were just 10 metres from the wreck’s bow, but couldn’t see it through the swirling sea haze. The only hint of the wreck was a solid timber, about two metres long and around 30 centimetres square, with a slight curve.
It’s so pristine after so long underwater that the divers could see the wood grain. After passing a few more timbers, the dark silhouette of a massive hull appeared, like a ghost ship.
“It’s like it is sailing out of the fog, really,” Bernier said. “You get a similar sensation. It’s almost not real. But it’s so huge.”
The vessel is upright, its three masts sheared off by ice. Her hulking form rises around five metres from the bottom. Underwater archeologists have a term for it: Standing proud.
The divers talked to each other, and to crew aboard Investigator, over a Scubaphone. They pressed a button attached to the black rubber of their full-face dive masks, just above the left jaw.
The sound quality isn’t great. To speak, the divers had to pop out the mouthpiece of their air regulators slightly, like athletes shifting teeth guards between plays. It was easier to hear if they held their breath.
This time, it was the wreck that left them breathless.
Harris called over the Scubaphone for Moore to come closer, and in the shadow of the vessel they had hunted for years, the archeologists embraced.
“It was my first underwater man-hug,” Harris said, back aboard the Coast Guard icebreaker. “There was absolute elation that we had the incredible privilege to experience this shipwreck, which has been so elusive, first-hand.”
Ryan and Moore swam gradually up the bow, then over the scarred deck, identifying targets for the next shift. They were a bit giddy with the wealth of things to see.
“I kept beckoning John to come over and look at something just so incredible, and at the same time, he’d be beckoning me over to look at something else incredible,” Harris said.
“I’d say, ‘I’ve got some good stuff here,’” Moore interjected. “‘I’m too busy to come and see your stuff.’”
Bernier was set to be the next down, but the Arctic cold sapped the batteries for the team’s cameras. So he had to wait while Thierry Boyer, 39, and Filippo Ronca, 44, got their long-awaited look.
Batteries recharged, Bernier took the third shift with Charles Dagneau, 38.
Even after a detailed briefing on what to look for, the unit’s boss was stunned by what he saw. He tilted his head back to see the ship’s towering bow. It was awesome.
Bernier could feel the power of a majestic ship, built for war, only to succumb to the Arctic.
Harris calls the archeological potential of the wreck site staggering and predicts it will take several years to carefully explore it. The team hopes they’ll be looking for the second Franklin wreck at the same time.
As sea ice closed in Thursday, the underwater archeologists called off the exploration for this year and headed for land aboard the Laurier.
“We’re going to give the site the respect it deserves,” Bernier said. “We’re going to take things slowly, do things properly and try to learn everything it has to teach us.”