Still hunting Franklin’s ships – who cares? And why?

A relief on the grave of Lieutenant John Irving, one of the officers aboard HMS Terror who died during the ill-fated expedition of 1845 to navigate the North-West Passage. His recovered body, found by U.S. Army Lieutenant Schwatka, was brought back to Edinburgh and reinterred in 1881. Image copyright Kim Traynor, CC, Some rights reserved.

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?

Who knows?

It’s just great human drama.

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9 Comments on “Still hunting Franklin’s ships – who cares? And why?”

  1. mervel says:

    I don’t understand it very much.

    But isn’t part of the legal strategic stance to obtain “ownership” of a particular area of the ocean to establish the history of exploration and claims.

    I think you are right about a new gold rush based on oil and gas and shipping is about to take place in the arctic and I agree with you, come on can’t we just have ONE place not totally exploited?

    But I think this interest is much more than academic historical interest.

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  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The Franklin expedition is only analogous to a space shuttle mission if Franklin’s ships had been equipped with Canadian built robotic arms and if the shuttle had gotten into orbit and found families living there.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  3. Jeff says:

    How often it has been said that those who do not learn history…? Well finding things lost is an opportunity to learn and if we had no curiosity we’d be less advanced than we are. Besides, looking at an historic wreck like the Vasa, being able to see the real thing, like the USS Constitution, brings more tangiblity to history. And maybe we can learn what not to do.

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  4. Pete Klein says:

    Yes, who cares? I don’t but I do wish we would leave the Arctic and the Antarctic alone.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  5. Mayflower says:

    If you have to find justification for finding those ships, you’ll never find the rationale or the ships.

    The rest of us really do want to find those ships (and Amelia Earhart too). Just like we want to find George Mallory

    Why? If you have to ask……

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  6. Mayflower says:

    Oops. WantED….we did find George.

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  7. Mervel says:

    It kind of relates to comparing actually going to the moon like Niel Armstrong did, versus sending a robot to the moon.

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  8. Lucy Martin says:

    It *was* sort of like a space mission – for that time – in terms of geographic reach.

    But Knuck is also right, the Arctic wasn’t uninhabited.

    Humans already lived there. And the locals knew their way around, thanks very much!

    When it comes to modern/non-native exploration of polar regions, it can be argued those who studied native skills and took them seriously had the best success. (Best example probably being Roald Amundsen.)

    That’s actually another interesting aspect of this story: how long did it take (does it still take?) to get over cultural arrogance and respect expertise – where ever it is found?

    It seems like this is improving -slowly.

    Native accounts of encountering survivors from the Franklin Expedition were not given full credence at the time. (The idea that good Christians might have sunk to cannibalism by the end was quite hard for readers safely back in England to accept.)

    Today, what the locals saw is definitely part of the Franklin Expedition story.

    That’s a certain kind of progress too.

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  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Best example definitely Amundsen, or should I say the great Amundsen. Maybe not a super nice guy, but a great explorer. Your points about respect and cultural arrogance are most appropriate. We here in the States could learn a little about that.

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