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Finding Franklin: How a 169-year-old mystery was solved

From 2014: After years of searching, success came almost by accident. Heavy ice pushed scientists away from their intended zone—and right over the elusive wreck.
Charlie Gillis and Chris Sorensen
Parks Canada
Parks Canada

The moment when Ryan Harris first laid eyes on one of Sir John Franklin’s missing ships was one of panic as much as jubilation. He was taking a break in the cuddy of the small research vessel Investigator when he heard a commotion outside. Fellow Parks Canada underwater archaeologist Jonathan Moore was worried that the side-scan sonar trailing behind the boat had drifted dangerously close to the sea floor. Harris rushed to help. As they both stared at the screen, the unmistakable signature of a sunken ship crawled past, 11 metres below the surface in the eastern Queen Maud Gulf. “I pointed and said, ‘That’s it, that’s it! We found it!’ ” Harris recalls, adding that he raised both arms over his head in celebration. An Ottawa Senators fan, he told his colleagues this must be what it feels like to win the Stanley Cup. The next few minutes were full of hoots, hollers and high-fives. “We were just so happy.”

After more a few more passes, Harris and his colleagues returned to the icebreaker CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The following day they went back out in the Investigator with a remotely operated submersible to take high-definition pictures, confirming beyond a shadow of a doubt the authenticity of the wreck, missing since 1848. That, in turn, set in motion a quiet series of phone calls to both Ottawa and London (the ships technically belong to Britain).

The next few hours were a whirlwind. Harris and others were whisked back to Ottawa on a series of red-eye flights just in time for the press conference with a beaming Prime Minister Stephen Harper. It was only later in the evening that the enormity of the find—just as Queen Elizabeth II sent along her congratulations—finally began to sink in: Harris and his colleagues had written themselves into one of Canada’s most enduring mysteries. “So many expeditions have been launched to look for Franklin and his men,” he says. “So many lives had been lost in what had so far been a fruitless search.” Next steps include returning for a dive to determine which of the two ships they found, and hopefully find clues as to the other’s whereabouts.

It was the hunt that almost wasn’t. Over the past couple of weeks, the ice—dense and relentless—had irresistibly pushed the team waging an all-out search for Franklin’s two vessels, the Erebus and Terror, into an area near previous searches. It’s a fickle force, the Arctic ice. In the summer of 1848, it refused to release the Franklin ships and forced desperate men on their doomed march across the tundra­­­—a march that defines them in the public mind, grisly reports of cannibalism notwithstanding.


Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Maybe this was the ocean’s way of giving back. Grim-faced, the search team aboard the Laurier probed on, scanning the shallows of the Queen Maud Gulf in case Inuit recollections of a ship sinking in the area were true. Further away, another ship—the well-appointed and ice-strengthened Akademik Sergey Vavilov—attempted to scan the ice-choked Victoria Strait with a high-tech underwater drone. The current search for Franklin’s ships began in 2008, with the 2015 mission representing the most ambitious effort yet, including multiple government departments and private companies.

Even with all those resources, the searchers needed a touch of luck. In this case, it took the form of two government of Nunavut archaeologists who took a chopper ride from the Laurier to a nearby island, barren and rocky, to mark the location of some early Inuit tent sites. With the help of their pilot, they identified two artifacts that were determined to be from the lost ships: An iron fitting from a Royal Navy ship and a plug for a deck hawse, the iron pipe through which the ship’s chain cable would descend into the locker below. Officials leading the search hailed the discovery as the “first of its kind in the area in modern times.”

But really it was a signpost, pointing the way for the truly epic discovery to come—one that not only promises to shed light on one of the world’s most compelling maritime tragedies, but could also give Canada’s efforts to assert itself in the Arctic an important boost. “It was all surprisingly emotional,” Harris recalls. “A lot of tears were shed. We’ve invested so much of our time, so many years. We were aware of the magnitude of what we were looking for.”

Related: Face to face with a Franklin crew member, 140 years later

The disappearance of the ships was an enigma for the ages. But the allure of this search lay chiefly in what the wrecks might tell us. What went wrong? Why did this expedition veer from adversity to desolation to despair and, finally, to horror?

It had begun, after all, steeped in imperial British confidence. Franklin had departed Greenhithe, England, in May 1845, in charge of two iron-reinforced bomber vessels, stocked with food that should have lasted three years. It was the greatest expedition of its time, and seemed sure to achieve its goal of charting a Northwest Passage to the Far East.

That something was amiss became clear soon enough. Three crew members died mysteriously while the ships spent their first winter off Beechey Island, in the heart of the Arctic archipelago. By September 1846, the Erebus and Terror were mired in ice and never sailed again. Only shreds of the nightmare that followed are known. The men wintered that year on nearby King William Island and were apparently unable to get the vessels moving again in the spring. By then, 24 were dead—an inexplicably high toll—while Franklin himself perished the following summer, according to a note searchers found in a cairn years later. So, after a second miserable winter on the island, the remaining men decided to cut their losses. They abandoned the ships, setting off across the 13,000-sq.-km landmass, dragging their wooden lifeboats behind them.

Were they stricken with lead poisoning? Forensic analysis suggests so. Lead-sealed food tins may have been to blame, or perhaps desalination systems on the ships designed to provide them with fresh water. Whatever the source, the men’s good judgment had abandoned them (an effect, it’s worth noting, of lead-related illness). If their stores were exhausted, their best bet would have been to head northeast for a known supply cache on the north tip of Somerset Island. From there, they were more likely to attract the attention of rescue ships. Instead, they headed southwest in an apparently misguided attempt to find the mouth of the Back River on what is now the Canadian mainland.

By that point they’d evidently split into two walking parties, suggesting discord, or even mutiny. Inuit witnesses later recounted the men “falling down and dying as they walked along.” Handwritten notes later recovered were strewn with delirious-sounding notations. By all indications they had indeed resorted to cannibalism. One Inuk hunter interviewed in 1879 recalled finding a lifeboat containing sawed off human bones, which led him to conclude “the white men had been eating each other.” A 1992 excavation later turned up bones of crewmen bearing tell-tale cut marks from metal implements.

Search after search dispatched by the British admiralty and the Hudson’s Bay Company brought home these gruesome clues—skeletons, scraps of uniforms, along with hundreds of pages of Inuit testimony recounting sightings of the men, and of the ships not long before they sank. Still, there was no sign of the Erebus or Terror, and by the onset of the 20th century, public interest was waning. Britain was girding for war, while the newly confederated Canada regarded the story as its mother country’s tragic misadventure. Only in the 1980s, when a forensic anthropologist named Owen Beattie disinterred the bodies on Beechey Island, did the Franklin expedition truly capture the Canadian imagination.

Samples taken for molecular analysis led Beattie to float the lead-poisoning hypothesis—the first plausible theory as to why the expedition was obliterated. The book he co-authored with John Geiger, Frozen in Time, triggered a frenzy of cultural interest in a long-forgotten story. Mordecai Richler and Margaret Atwood wrote fiction around the legend. Canadian historians began digging into the record and, perhaps most importantly, men and women with knowledge of the frozen North began to ruminate. The Arctic cold, they knew, guards metal and wood from decay as surely as it does human remains. If the ships went down where Inuit accounts suggested, they might shed light on the greatest of maritime tragedies.

Paul Watson/Toronto Star/Getty Images
Paul Watson/Toronto Star/Getty Images

None was more enthusiastic than Geiger, who went on to become CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. Last year, his organization joined the initiative at Harper’s invitation. For years, Geiger had wondered about the trove of information the boats might hold. Today, he admits he can scarcely wait to find out what’s on board the one they’ve found.

“There may be documents in sealed cylinders. There may be surviving paper,” says Geiger, who was aboard a research vessel a short sail away when news of the find began spreading. “If we’ve found the flagship Erebus, Sir John’s quarters will be there, his belongings. There will be human remains. There will be insights into how they lived and how they died. There’s no end to the answers we might be able to glean.”

To hear the Prime Minister tell it, the stakes for Canada are enormous. The statement from his office announcing the discovery drew a direct link between the shipwreck, Canada’s claims to the Arctic and its internationally important waters. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty,” the PM said.

Geiger concurs. “I don’t think anyone seriously disputes sovereignty over this part of this area,” he says. “But there are questions about the seriousness of our presence and our exercise of sovereignty. There’s something special about the Arctic, and this is a way to drive a connection between southern Canadians and their North.”

All of that searching for Erebus and Terror helped to advance Canada’s knowledge about the potential shipping route. Much of the Arctic seabed remains uncharted to modern standards, making navigation hazardous. During this year’s expedition, one of the search vessels—the Martin Bergmann—temporarily ran aground, but didn’t sustain any damage. “The Arctic is an area where a lot has to be done,” says Denis Haines, the director general of the Canadian Hydrographic Service at Fisheries and Oceans Canada. “Many charts are obsolete due to the fact they’re not located using GPS. Sometimes we find ourselves in areas, and think we know where we are, but we’re really 200 to 300 m beside that.”

It’s not clear whether Harper is really talking about sovereignty in the strict sense of the term when discussing Franklin’s significance to Canada. “We use the word sovereignty loose and fast,” says Robert Huebert, an associate political science professor at the University of Calgary. “Everybody does. Really what they’re saying is this is significant for Canadian nationalism.” He compared it to the way Americans have embraced the bloody Battle of the Alamo in 1836 as part of their national story even though Texas was not yet a member of the union. For Canada, then, Franklin has become a symbol of courage and the spirit of exploration in a particularly harsh land. It hardly matters that he was British. “It’s significant for our national story and the way the North was explored,” Huebert says.

Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The effort—and the discovery—couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Though largely overshadowed by the Franklin hunt, two Canadian icebreakers spent the summer further north, scouring the Arctic seabed as part of an effort to lay claim to the region and its valuable resources. Ottawa has already made a preliminary submission to a United Nations commission to extend Canada’s reach as far as the North Pole—a position that is being challenged by Russia, among others. Now, amid the sudden deterioration of relations between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis, all that territorial jockeying has taken on increased significance. “The bottom line is the Ukraine crisis has sharpened our realization of what the Russians are doing with regards to militarizing the Arctic,” says Huebert. “It’s a new geopolitical reality.”

For Harper, personally, the find—and the promise of future Franklin-related discoveries—is thus a vindication of sorts. He’s sometimes been criticized for talking big about Canada’s commitment to the North but not following through with the necessary cash. Every summer he has taken tours of the region that were laden with photo ops—standing stoically on the decks of navy ships, bouncing over the tundra on all-terrain vehicles—and has promised to spend billions on infrastructure, including a fleet of Arctic offshore patrol ships, the polar icebreaker John G. Diefenbaker, a deepwater port at Nanisivik on the northern tip of Baffin Island, and a High Arctic Research Centre at Cambridge Bay. But while big-ticket government projects have a way of being delayed or downsized, solving the mystery of the Franklin expedition—which now looks increasingly likely—represents a relatively inexpensive way to make a big international splash in Arctic waters at a time when the entire world is looking. It was a gamble, to be sure, but one that just paid big near a small, ice-scraped island in the high Arctic.