Amazing Kids! Magazine

The Franklin Underwater Expedition

By Ryan Traynor, Editor-in-Chief


In late September in the northern Canadian waters (north of the United States above Canada, all the way to the Arctic Circle), a shipwreck was discovered after a 6 year search. The HMS Erebus and HMS Terror wrecked 166 years ago (in 1848) in the ice. The underwater divers from the Parks Canada team’s dive boat named Investigator have just begun to explore the shipwreck to see what is on board. The Investigator is a small research boat owned by Parks Canada that, fittingly, was named after the very first rescue ship sent in the late 1840s to attempt to find the Franklin expedition and sunk trying.

The exact location of the shipwreck is being kept secret to make it more difficult for looters to find. All that has been disclosed is that it is in shallow waters around 11 meters (a little over 36 feet) deep off the shore of a remote island northwest of the Adelaide Peninsula, off of mainland Canada. Many collaborators worked on the search for the Franklin ships, including the Coast Guard, the Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Canadian Ice Service. British Franklin expert William Battersby stated that it’s “the biggest archeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb almost 100 years ago.”

Canada declared the wrecks national historic sites in 1992, long before anyone knew precisely where they were beneath the High Arctic seas. But that didn’t provide any legal protection. A 1997 diplomatic agreement between Canada and Britain gave Canada control over investigation, excavation and recovery of artifacts. Britain retained ownership of the ships, but Canada will own any artifacts retrieved.

They have determined that the shipwreck is part of the Franklin expedition, and more importantly, just on October 9th they confirmed that the wreck is the ship Erebus, not the Terror. Erebus, slightly larger than Terror, was Franklin’s flagship and will contain the captain’s quarters. The two ships were sailing in 1848 when they hit heavy ice. Franklin and his 128 crew had to leave them, 100 kilometers (over 62 miles) from where they ended up. The second ship still has not been discovered.

In 1845, Franklin set together a crew of 128 men to find the western exit of the Northwest Passage, which the British Admiralty sought as a shorter route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Everyone in the expedition died. It was the worst disaster the Royal Navy suffered during its long exploration of the Arctic. After many years of reviewing evidence, there has been no definite reason why the entire crew perished. Experts have explored lead poisoning, botulism, scurvy and even cannibalism but have not determined a definite cause. Experts hope that by reviewing evidence now found under water, they will be able to determine the events of that day.

Through researching the Erebus, archaeologists hope to discover how Erebus reached the group of islands in eastern Queen Maud Gulf. Crew members reported abandoning the ice trapped vessels far north of this spot.

There have been stories passed down through the years by the Inuit, descendants of the Thule culture who live on the Arctic tundra and are also known as Eskimos.  The Inuit told tales of seeing a ship adrift in a sea of ice and of white men living on the Arctic ice at that time. None of the stories have been confirmed, which makes the shipwreck a discovery of historical significance. It may confirm the theory that some of the crew stayed with the ship and sailed her to the waters where she was found, living off the boat as it was frozen in the ice. However, they have found that the ship’s anchors were not deployed, indicating that the spot she rests is accidental, not planned.

The search continues to find the second long-missing ship. The search has some added benefits too. Their voyages are creating modern navigation charts that make it easier for large vessels to ply Canada’s Arctic waterways.

There are other archaeological sites related to the Franklin expedition that have helped to piece together their voyage. At Beechey Island, a national historic site where Franklin and his 128 men spent their first horrific winter in 1845-46, three of the men were buried there in shallow graves.

Victory Point is where expedition members landed in 1848 after abandoning their ice-trapped ships in September. Franklin died on June 11, 1847 according to records found at Victory Point, before the ships were abandoned and the rest of the crew perished.

Artifacts that have been on the sea bottom for close to 170 years are difficult and expensive to preserve. Archeologists must weigh the potential benefits against the costs. Their main goal is to find paper – log books or notes that could provide invaluable details to explain why all 129 men perished on Franklin’s expedition to complete the Northwest Passage.

The Franklin expedition is a real life underwater adventure that will continue to provide us with exciting details for years to come.