Searchers find second ship from doomed British expedition, lost in Arctic for 170 years

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2016, 10:22am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 September, 2016, 9:05pm

The second of two British explorer ships that vanished in the Arctic nearly 170 years ago during a storied expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage has been found.

The Arctic Research Foundation said Monday that the HMS Terror has been located by a research ship. Last seen in the 1840s while under the command of Sir John Franklin, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror have long been among the most sought-after prizes in marine archaeology and the subject of songs, poems and novels. The wreck of the Erebus was found in 2014.

“I can confirm it has been found,” said Aleta Brooke of the Arctic Research Foundation, one of the groups involved in the search.

Franklin and 128 hand-picked officers and men had set out in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, the long-sought shortcut to Asia that supposedly ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of the harsh, ice-choked Arctic.

Few details were immediately available about the discovery of the remaining vessel from Franklin’s quest for the passage. Parks Canada, a government department, said it is “excited about the reports of the discovery of the wreck of HMS Terror.”

Lost Northwest Passage ship Erebus found by Canadian searchers

“The discovery of HMS Terror would be important for Canada, reflecting the ongoing and valuable role of Inuit traditional knowledge in the search and making a significant contribution to completing the Franklin story,” a government statement said. “Parks Canada is currently working with our partners to validate the details of the discovery.”

The confirmation of the HMS Erebus find in 2014 was made by underwater archaeologists, following a meticulous review of data and artifacts observed from the Arctic Ocean’s seabed and using high-resolution photography, high-definition video and multi-beam sonar measurements.

Canada announced in 2008 that it would look for the ships, and the Canadian government has poured millions of dollars into the venture, with former Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself taking part in the search. It was all part of Harper’s plan to boast Canadian nationalism and a sense of ownership of the north.

Harper’s government made the project a top priority as it looked to assert Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, where melting Arctic ice in recent years has unlocked the very shipping route Franklin was seeking. Canada says it owns the passage. The U.S. and others say it is international territory.

The well-preserved wreck of HMS Erebus was found 11 metres below the surface, near King William Island, about 2,000km northwest of Toronto.

Historians believe that the ships got trapped in thick ice in 1846 off Prince William Island, and Franklin and some other crew members died in the ensuing months. The survivors apparently abandoned the two ships in April 1848 in a hopeless bid to reach safety overland. Inuit lore tells of “white men who were starving” as late as the winter of 1850 on the Royal Geographical Society Island near Prince William Island. The death of all 129 men made the Franklin expedition the worst tragedy in the history of Arctic exploration.

For many years afterward, Franklin was celebrated as a Victorian-era hero.

Dozens of searches by the British and Americans in the 1800s failed to locate the wrecks, and some of those expeditions also ended in tragedy. But they opened up parts of the Canadian Arctic to discovery and ultimately found a Northwest Passage, though it proved inhospitable to shipping because of ice and treacherous weather.

The search for an Arctic passage to Asia frustrated explorers for centuries, beginning with John Cabot’s voyage in 1497. The shortcut eluded other famous explorers, including Henry Hudson and Francis Drake.

No sea crossing was successful until Roald Amundsen of Norway completed his trip in 1903-06. The exact location of Erebus was not disclosed for fear of looters.

A small flotilla of ships sailed for the Arctic at the end of August of this year and were to return by mid-September.