Mention the Franklin Expedition and Arctic buffs already know the story. How two British Royal Navy ships set sail in 1845 to explore the Arctic and seek the Northwest passage. That none from those crews returned alive. How the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror seemingly vanished.
There’s a U.S. connection to one of the lost ships, too. Lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key was detained aboard HMS Terror into the dawn of September 14, 1814, as Fort McHenry was bombarded in Baltimore Harbor. Key penned his feelings to those sights – verse that went on to become the Star Spangled Banner.
When the Franklin Expedition failed to return, years of intense search and rescue efforts followed. Eventually, some of what happened became clear. But plenty of questions persist.
All these years later, Arctic historians and the nations of Britain and Canada retain keen interest in finding the ships – presumably crushed by ice and lying on the sea floor still. To some, the ships represent a sort of Holy Grail of unresolved Arctic mysteries.
Previous efforts were attempted by Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service surveys in 2008, 2010 and 2011. Last summer’s hunt began with high hopes, but did not find the main prizes. This summer, Parks Canada is back at it once more, with better, high-tech tools that could make the difference.
Interest in Canada is generating expanded media coverage, including journalists like the CBC’s Curt Petrovich – who brings long experience to the topic and region.
Here, Pertrovich details “Mano” the robotic shark. (Mano is Hawaiian for shark.) The Autonomous Underwater Vehicle carries an onboard computer and GPS and satellite receiver. It can travel on its own, systematically mapping the ocean floor with sonar, even in surface weather that would normally slow the work.
Speaking to Petrovich, Prof. Colin Bradley at the University of Victoria’s Ocean Technology Lab mused about the hunt’s significance, including the emotional aspect:
Bradley said finding the vessels will be deeply significant to Canada and Great Britain.
“And to me to think about the mid-1800s sailors getting on these vessels and saying goodbye to their families, knowing they were going to be away for several years, in these tiny little vessels, heading off into the unknown … it’s really akin to a space shuttle trip today. It is an amazing story and to be able to be part of a team that wraps that up that brings the story to a conclusion is going to be phenomenal.”
Here’s an official governmental press release on this summer’s efforts. And here’s a Canadian Press video of Prime Minister Stephen Harper saying why this still matters and joking about what might turn up.
But spending money and resources to this degree isn’t only about hope and glory, or tributes to heroics of yesteryear. A number of observers say it’s all part of positioning at the start of what may be a new ‘gold rush’ up north.
Personally, I’d prefer to leave the Arctic alone. (I see no need to muck up every last corner of the planet!)
But as the amount of sea ice in the Arctic falls to the lowest level on record, change is coming to that region, like it or not. Expect to see important new shipping routes and increased efforts to exploit significant energy and mineral resources.
Here’s how political observer Tim Powers put it in this CBC analysis piece:
“Canada acts deliberately in the Arctic,” said Powers, who has served as a party strategist.
“I think you’d have to be fairly naive not to recognize that there is broader value when one is trying to establish who controls and is legitimately responsible for different parts of the Arctic.”
Powers says every federal government action in the North has the potential to shape future claims.
“It’s about demonstrating the import you place on the Arctic, but also that certain parts of the Arctic you feel are strongly within your territorial realm.”
But – debate about motivation aside – those who want to find these interesting ships are hopeful as they follow this summer’s renewed efforts.
Meanwhile, if you want a poignant musical taste of how this subject grips Canadians, take a listen to this You Tube post of Stan Rogers and his iconic shanty “Northwest Passage “.
Here’s a funny comment on that page about that great song:
This is the manliest thing I have ever heard. I feel like doing something manly. Like joining the armed forces or becoming a lumberjack or a fisherman.
God bless you, strong and rugged Canadian men!
Is that what going to the moon, to Mars, to seek the Northwest Passage boils down to? Feeling one’s oats as a brave human or a strong nation?
It’s just great human drama.