The Franklin Expedition is still our coldest case

The story of the missing Arctic explorers is as much about politics as about archaeology

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In a few weeks, Marc-André Bernier and six other Parks Canada underwater archaeologists will ply the ice-choked Victoria Strait in Canada’s High Arctic in search of what may be the North’s most infamous—and, if Ottawa has its way, significant—maritime disaster: the lost Franklin Expedition.

The annual hunt, the fifth since 2008, will be the biggest and most high-profile ever, consisting of nearly a dozen government departments and private sponsors. If they get lucky, Bernier and his team could shed new light on a 170-year-old mystery that’s long captivated the public imagination. The abridged version: Sir John Franklin, an accomplished naval officer and Arctic explorer, set sail from England in 1845 in the hope of charting a route through the Northwest Passage, but neither he nor his 128 men returned. Subsequent expeditions to find Franklin’s two iron-clad war ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, turned up bits and pieces of a horrific tale. Both ships became trapped in ice and, despite three years’ worth of provisions, crew members may have ultimately resorted to eating their dead comrades. “This would be a really interesting find,” Bernier says. “It’s pivotal in the European exploration of the Arctic. The loss of that expedition triggered many other expeditions, resulting in a lot of other finds.”

Related: Harper joins search for lost ships of Franklin expedition

But Ottawa’s interest in Franklin goes far beyond the archaeological. It has equally as much to do with realizing Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “Northern Strategy,” which envisions the increasingly ice-free Arctic as a potential resource bonanza. (Shell Canada is a partner in this year’s search.) It’s also about securing the Northwest Passage itself. As the sea ice melts, there’s growing global interest in an Arctic shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as the bulk carrier Nordic Orion demonstrated last year with a first-ever commercial transit. And most countries currently don’t recognize Canada’s claim of control over the waters, arguing instead that they are, in fact, an international strait.

With other elements of Harper’s Arctic strategy flagging for budgetary reasons, the hunt for Franklin, as quixotic as it’s been so far, has actually come to represent the best chance for Canada to make its voice heard in the vast wilderness of the North, even if it risks a little historical revisionism in the process. “It has greater value than people realize,” says Adriana Craciun, a University of California professor. Finding Erebus and Terror “would give Canada a moral authority—another small piece of the puzzle—and a way to make a case publicly that these are our historical national waters.”

Bernier’s team will start their hunt for Erebus and Terror in mid-August to the southwest of Nunavut’s King William Island, where it’s believed wreckage of one or both ships could have ultimately drifted. Later in the month, once the ice in the Victoria Strait clears, the search will move northward to where the doomed Franklin expedition was initially believed to have become trapped. Using an autonomous underwater vehicle called Arctic Explorer that’s equipped with special new sonar equipment—not unlike that used to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jet earlier this year—Bernier says the researchers will systematically scour the sea floor for clues, mapping a bunch of uncharted territory below the surface along the way.

There’s a reason why researchers are only now focusing on the last reported position of Erebus and Terror. Previous expeditions relied on a typical side-scan sonar that works best when towed at a consistent depth of about 10 m above the sea floor—difficult to do in the deep and rough waters of the Victoria Strait. Also, the search areas of earlier missions were influenced by the priorities of the Canadian Hydrographic Service, which was eager to map a potential new route to the south of King William Island, Bernier says. “Ideally, if we had the appropriate equipment from the beginning, we probably would have started farther north.”

This year’s hunt won’t suffer from the same technological limitations—the Arctic Explorer underwater vehicle can go wherever it wants—but the conflicting priorities could remain. Bernier and his team will be based on the Martin Bergmann, a fishing trawler-cum-research vessel outfitted by former BlackBerry boss Jim Balsillie’s Arctic Research Foundation. They will be joined by the coast guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier and HMCS Kingston, a coastal patrol vessel the Royal Canadian Navy is eager to put through its paces as the department gears up for more Arctic missions. The cost to taxpayers? Parks Canada’s official budget is $270,000, but the total figure, once everything is included, from on-loan icebreakers to radar satellites, is likely in the millions.

By far the most unusual addition to this year’s expedition is an ice-strengthened polar research vessel and cruise ship called One Ocean Voyager, which could have doubled as a set for Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. With a capacity to carry 160 passengers and crew, the Finnish-built ship boasts an upper-deck bar with 180-degree view, large dining room and comes equipped with “a gift shop, fitness room, massage room, hot-water spa, sauna and saltwater plunge pool.” John Geiger, the CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, says the cruise ship will be used mostly to ferry researchers and dignitaries, including representatives from Shell Canada and the Garfield Weston Foundation, partners in this year’s search. There are a few spots open to the public, starting at about $12,000 for a two-week trip. “Be a part of Canadian history in the making,” one travel website beckons.

Federal officials have suggested that finding Erebus and Terror, already designated national historic sites, would “enhance” Canada’s Arctic claims. But experts are dubious. Public fascination aside, the two missing ships do no better job of proving Canada’s historical ties than the ships the British lost looking for them in the 1850s, including the Breadalbane and HMS Investigator (both of which have since been found). “It really comes down to having the assets to know what’s up there and to be able to respond accordingly,” says Robert Huebert, an associate political science professor at the University of Calgary. “And that’s where we’re substantially weaker.”

Harper is well aware of this. He proposed building a fleet of new heavy icebreakers back in 2006 and, later, a deep-water naval facility at Nanisivik on the northern tip of Baffin Island. But the Arctic naval port has since been downsized to a seasonal refuelling station, while the icebreakers have been replaced with “ice-capable” offshore patrol ships that critics say are ill-suited for Arctic conditions. By contrast, Russia boasts a fleet of six nuclear-powered heavy icebreakers, and as many as 10 Arctic ports along its Northern Sea Route.

But Harper, who conducts photo-op-heavy tours in Canada’s North each summer, also knows the power of symbols in politics. The hunt for Franklin has already drawn huge interest, and a discovery would be big international news—not unlike the headlines generated when a Russian scientist dropped a flag on the sea floor beneath the North Pole during a submarine expedition back in 2007. And, even if Erebus and Terror are never found, the yearly act of combing Arctic waters with high-tech equipment—government agencies and corporate types in tow—is surely better than nothing at all. “Use it or lose it,” Harper has said of his Arctic sovereignty approach.

There are, nevertheless, pitfalls to relying too heavily on Franklin to advance Canada’s Northern agenda. For one thing, it risks reducing the Inuit to bit players in Canada’s Arctic history, despite their presence in the region for a millennium. Craciun says it suggests the Arctic was merely waiting “to be discovered by these Englishmen, who couldn’t even survive for longer than a few years.”

Striking the right balance is, therefore, key, which is likely why the expedition partners have gone out of their way to put local communities front and centre. Balsillie’s foundation is building an artist’s studio in Cambridge Bay, and has helped to ferry soapstone from local quarries. It’s also supporting research by Queen’s University on the feasibility of an Inuit commercial fishery based in Gjoa Haven. The government of Nunavut, meanwhile, is leading a search this summer on King William Island, where previous expeditions have turned up Franklin artifacts, including the remains of dead crew members.

In other words, hunting for shipwrecks is normally about uncovering the past. But, for Canada and the Arctic, it’s all about charting a course for the future.

Correction: This story originally referred to HMCS Kingston and HMS Kingston. Maclean’s regrets the error.




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The Franklin Expedition is still our coldest case

  1. What a total waste of money searching for the ship whose captain did not have enough sense to realize that he could have survive a lot longer and maybe even gone back to where he came if had been smart enough to utilize the expertise of the Inuit that lived around that area at the time and still do.
    Finding the ship will not in any way better the living conditions of the people up here but will ,he hopes ,only enhance the PM s standing in his enclosed world.
    What a waste. Jack

    • I firmly believe Harper is also using this search to map the bottom on behalf of the oil and gas industry, compliments of Canadian taxpayers.

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