In 1845, 129 men set sail on Sir John Franklin’s HMS Terror and HMS Erebus to explore the Northwest Passage and find a safe route from Europe to the Orient.
The Franklin expedition was meant to last three years but after just 18 months, the vessels disappeared. While some artifacts were located in known archeological sites on Nunavut’s King William Island during a month-long summer search, evidence of the ships themselves has yet to be found.
From Aug. 24 to Sept. 21, robotics experts from the University of Victoria’s ocean technology laboratory, including research engineer and team leader Alison Proctor, ventured into the arctic archipelago during Parks Canada’s fourth mission to unlock the mystery of what happened to the elusive ships.
Proctor was a part of a three-person engineering and operating team from the lab who worked alongside representatives from the seven participating groups on the Sir Wilfred Laurier and the Martin Bergmann vessels. Proctor collected data through the Bluefin-12 AUV (autonomous underwater vehicle), a fully autonomous submarine which uses side scan sonar imagery to search the seafloor for any characteristics that might suggest wreckage.
Following an early morning launch, the crew would survey for as much time as the weather would allow, usually logging 17-hour days. Summer temperates off King William Island, comparable to winters on the West Coast, weren’t an issue, but high winds were.
“It’s not that cold at all, but the water temperature is quite cold, so you can’t go swimming and you don’t want to fall in the water,” she said.
The team didn’t uncover any stand out features in the sonar data – either relating to shape, size, or patterns which would suggest a man-made object – but Proctor isn’t giving up. The data is now being analyzed by Parks Canada and the researcher says it’s just a matter of time before they uncover the evidence they’re looking for.
“Parks Canada picks the (search areas) with the highest probability, but it’s a big ocean and we have a very large survey area,” Proctor said. “While I have no doubt that it will be found, it could take a while. I think eventually somebody will find remnants and figure it out.
“The sonar is very precise, but we won’t necessarily use this technology to find it,” Proctor added. “If it takes 10 more years, who knows what the technology will be at that time? There’s an infinite number of possible outcomes here.”
Proctor was happy with how the Bluefin-12 performed, but said it will likely undergo modifications for future expeditions, should the lab be asked to return with the $800,000-vehicle on future polar expeditions.
The combined sea bed surveys led by Canadian Hydrographic Service, which worked closely with Parks Canada and UVic, covered 424.3 square kilometres. The survey vessels travelled a total line distance of more than 4,200 kilometres, covering the distance of almost two-thirds of Canada.
The Canadian Space Agency, Canadian Ice Service, the Government of Nunavut and Environment Canada were also involved in the search.
“Along with our attempts to locate HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, this project continues to be successful due to the collaborative nature of our work,” said Ryan Harris, underwater archaeologist with with Parks Canada.
“Together, our combined expertise and equipment is allowing for the mapping and charting of this region, leading to safe, navigable waters, while systematically narrowing the search for the lost Franklin vessels.”