VANCOUVER - Arctic ice will keep underwater archeologists away from the lost Franklin expedition wreck HMS Erebus for close to another year, but that won’t stop them exploring and learning more from her.
Before Parks Canada divers had to leave the newly discovered wreck this month, teams that cooperated in the hunt for Franklin’s mid-19th century Royal Navy ships worked fast, against the clock and closing weather, to make sonar images.
Back at their headquarters in Ottawa, they give underwater archeologists a virtual shipwreck to study as they plan an ambitious new season of dives, choreographed almost as precisely as an underwater dance.
The team will have to be especially careful next time they meet Erebus. They plan to go deep inside her, the first humans to do so since the bomb ship foundered in the High Arctic more than 160 years ago.
During several hours of exploring Erebus over two days, the divers were able to peek just inside the wreck, with open water above them.
“We’ve been inside, in a very limited way, and had that excitement of looking inside HMS Erebus,” Ryan Harris, senior underwater archeologist at Parks Canada, said from Ottawa.
“We could see, for example, forward and see what appears to be the ship’s galley.
“This is the space where sailors lived. So you felt this real identification with the place. It was haunting.”
To the divers, it also felt very inviting looking at lots of open space below decks.
That will give them room to enter and move around Erebus, Harris said, when the marine archeologists return after the sea ice melts late next summer.
Harris and his dive team have built up a file of photographs, video and written observations that they are poring over to improve their understanding of the wreck.
They already know her well from years of studying shipbuilders’ plans and expedition artifacts stored at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.
Cross-checking with what they saw first-hand on the wreck site, and now see on sonar images, brings them steps closer to answers that could solve the mystery of why Franklin and his 128-man crew all perished.
One of the most important is how Erebus reached the archipelago in eastern Queen Maud Gulf where she now lies. It’s far from the spot to the north where crew members reported abandoning her in ice with HMS Terror.
Inuit oral history suggests some of Franklin’s men may have sailed her there and were living off the ship before she sank.
Erebus was Franklin’s flagship. Franklin died of unknown causes before his crew abandoned her along with HMS Terror.
Archeologists are eager to figure out how the commander’s vessel wound up so close to the mainland, which was the men’s best escape route from the lethal Arctic — if only someone had survived long enough.
“It means a lot,” Harris said. “It’s the ship drifting aimlessly, at the whim of the ice, versus men returning to the ship and clinging to this forlorn hope of salvation, perhaps, and maybe eventually navigating out of the Arctic.
“That’s really dramatic stuff and we want to be able to conclude what happened quite confidently and with certainty.”
If the crew did sail south, and stopped where the vessel is now, evidence might lie with Erebus’ anchors.
Any sign that the ship’s anchors were set in the sea bottom would suggest crewmen lowered them. So far, Harris hasn’t seen evidence they did from studying at least six anchors the divers found.
“They’d have been secured up against the bulwarks inboard,” Harris said. “And then, as the bulwarks were taken down by the ice, they flopped down onto the sea floor in a number of places. And that’s precisely where we found them.
“I think we can say, as far as we can tell at this point in time, it did not have anchors deployed. We don’t see the anchor chains trailing off into the distance.”
One of the divers’ best virtual views of Erebus while working in Ottawa comes from the Canadian Hydrographic Service, which normally surveys the seabed to make navigation charts.
Its survey teams used multi-beam sonar to create a detailed, 3D image of the wreck standing in around 11 metres of water.
Separate sonar scans from the side provided a different perspective that fills in blanks from the multi-beam image, made from above.
The sonar images aren’t good enough to spot any tin cans, which Inuit told 19th-century searchers were inside the ship. Some were open and full of fatty meat, others still sealed tight, the Inuit said.
So divers will be hunting for those once they get inside Erebus.
Like subsea detectives, the marine archeologists will also be carefully mapping precisely were artifacts lie, and their relationship to each other. Those details tell their own story.
To help decipher it, the team will use a new laser device, built to meet their needs by 2G Robotics Inc. of Waterloo, Ontario.
It casts an eerie glow through the murk, as ghostly as the mystery it may help solve.