Search launched for the Franklin ships' watery Arctic grave

The sun sets over the Franklin Strait in Nunavut. 
Photo Jonathan Hayward

By Tamara Baluja - The Globe and Mail

Like the explorers aboard the ships of Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 quest for the Northwest Passage, an elite team of professional underwater archaeologists will be racing against the clock before the winter freeze.

A new research project launched on Thursday by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, is the latest expedition sent to find the watery graves of the Terror and Erebus, which have captured global imagination for almost two centuries.

“It’s been called the Holy Grail of wrecks in Canadian waters,” said Marc-André Bernier, Parks Canada’s chief underwater archaeologist, who leads the mission.

With a $275,000 cash infusion for a four to six-week expedition, by far the most significant contribution ever for the largest search since 1967, the divers are confident they may be able to find the only national historic sites not yet located.

“It’s become one of those Canadian myths and would be a tremendous cultural find,” said William Barr, a historian with the Arctic Institute of North America in Calgary and author of Arctic Hell-Ship, a book about Enterprise, one of the vessels the British sent in search of the lost Franklin ships in 1850.

The Conservatives, despite an austerity agenda that has forced cuts on government services including Parks Canada, have made establishing Canada’s claim to Arctic sovereignty a priority and are investing in historically significant national projects.

Ottawa spent only $200,000 in total on Parks Canada’s missions to seek the wrecks in 2008, 2010 and 2011. Critics call the link to Canadian Arctic sovereignty tenuous: These were British ships in what was then British waters.

Franklin embarked on his ill-fated search for the Northwest Passage in 1845. By 1848, he was dead and the ships were ice-locked near King William Island.

The survivors attempted to walk south to a fur trading post, and all died in their tracks from hunger and cold.

The ships are believed to have drifted, possibly hundreds of kilometres.

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