OTTAWA - It wasn’t supposed to be a recovery dive.
Two Parks Canada divers were meant only to survey the wreck of HMS Erebus, the flagship of Cpt. John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition. Any recovery operations would come later, when they had adequately assessed the wreck’s site.
The mission changed when one diver noticed a small bronze object on the deck, prominent against the sea life-covered frame of the wreck.
“What we heard on the comms as we were looking at the ship . . . was ‘I found the bell, I found the bell!’” said Marc-André Bernier, the head of Parks Canada underwater archeology staff, on Thursday.
The bell from Erebus, unveiled at Parks Canada’s Ottawa headquarters Thursday, was recovered during a dive in September, soon after the wreck was found.
The broad arrow identifying it as the property of the British navy, as well as the number 1845 — the year the ship was retrofitted for its mission to chart a northwest passage through the Arctic — can still be made out on the bell’s face.
It’s one of the only artifacts to be recovered from Franklin’s flagship, although researchers have identified many more. Two bronze canons, numerous pieces of the ships rigging and even old rope have been spotted in the debris surrounding the wreck, Bernier said.
Those artifacts will have to wait for subsequent dives next summer, when the Arctic ice recedes. Bernier said researchers only had time for seven hour-long dives at the Erebus site before weather conditions forced them to leave the site.
Bernier said Parks Canada, in talks with the Nunavut government, decided to recover the bell rather than risk damage or loss during another winter on the sea floor.
The bell holds a special significance for sailors, according to Rear Adm. John Newton, the commander of Joint Task Force Atlantic.
“Every ship that sails has a bell . . . and that name and that bell stays with that ship for its entire career until lost in action or until the ship is decommissioned,” Newton said.
“It lives long after timbers and organic material, and we’re seeing that today.”
The Erebus wreck was discovered in September, six years after Parks Canada began their search near the Victoria Strait in Canada’s North — and almost 170 years after Franklin set out on his final journey. Prime Minister Stephen Harper hailed the discovery as an important part of Canada’s claim to northern sovereignty.
The bell was unveiled by Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, who called it an “important artifact.”
For now, the bell will remain with Parks Canada, where it is undergoing the first phase of preservation, submerged in water. According to Parks Canada researchers, the bell still requires cleaning and a chemical bath before it can be displayed publicly.
No decision has been made on where the bell will ultimately be displayed, according to Parks Canada.