Canada Northwest Passage

Canadians discover long-lost ship ‘fundamental’ to Arctic sovereignty

The wreckage of HMS Investigator - Lieut. S. Gurney Cresswell courtesy Toronto Reference Library

By Don Martin - National Post

The ship whose crew discovered Canada’s Northwest Passage has been found 155 years after it was abandoned and disappeared in this isolated Arctic bay, a historic find and one that may help bolster Canadian claims to Arctic sovereignty.

The wreck of HMS Investigator was detected in shallow water within days of Parks Canada archeologists launching an ambitious search for the 422-ton ship from a chilly tent encampment on the Beaufort Sea shoreline.

“It’s sitting upright in silt; the three masts have been removed, probably by ice,” said Ifan Thomas, Parks Canada’s superintendent of the western Arctic Field Unit. “It’s a largely intact ship in very cold water, so deterioration didn’t happen very quickly.”

Environment Minister Jim Prentice, who arrived at the camp on Tuesday, said that finding a relic linked to the discovery of the Northwest Passage represents a reasserted Canadian claim to Arctic sovereignty.

“It’s fundamental to Canadian sovereignty in the North,” he said in an interview.

“[A]nd the tragic tale of Investigator is one of the most amazing stories of Arctic history. It’s a tale of incredible determination and suffering,” Mr. Prentice said.

The three-masted, copper-bottomed Investigator was found this week after marine archeologists deployed side-scan sonars from inflatable Zodiac boats. Underwater cameras will be used this week to photograph the wreck and divers will be deployed next summer to probe the hull.

The clear Arctic water makes it possible to glimpse the outline of the ship’s outer deck, which is only eight metres below the surface.

Three graves were also found on Tuesday. They are undoubtedly the remains of a trio of British sailors who succumbed to disease in the final months of this ship’s three-year Arctic ordeal.

“In anthropological terms, this is the most important shipwreck in history,” said senior marine archeologist, Ryan Harris.

“This was the first contact with the Copper Inuit; it’s a bit like finding a Columbus ship in the Arctic.”

The remains of the 36-metre ship were discovered at the approximate spot 150 metres off shore where it was last visited in 1854 by a passing British expedition.