On day two of our voyage ‘Out of the Northwest Passage’, we sailed into a mid-afternoon blizzard. Marc-Andre Bernier, manager of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada, was halfway through a presentation on The Search and Discovery of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Ships.
Suddenly, on the 137-metre Ocean Endeavour, which weighs almost 13,000 tons, we could look out and see the kinds of conditions the Franklin expedition encountered in the mid-1840s in two small wooden ships. We could see, compare, and appreciate.
Within the next two days, Bernier proposed to lead a visit to the site of the recently discovered HMS Erebus. While outside the wind gusted to gale-force (upwards of 50 knots), he talked about the Parks Canada search operations over the past eight years, and of the ongoing battle in the Canadian Arctic between ‘History’ (as an extended narrative of human achievement) and ‘Geography’ (the natural world). He highlighted the contributions of Inuit accounts relayed through such explorers as John Rae, Charles Francis Hall, and Frederick Schwatka, who relied on interpreters William Ouligbuck, Tookoolito, and Ebierbing.
Before he finished, Bernier explained that these accounts ‘gave us an area, but did not establish a location.’ That is why the search, which turned up Erebus in 2014, had required so much time and energy. It consumed eight years, covered an area equal to 215,686 football fields, and required 322 person-days of field work. It also involved the consumption of 500 litres of coffee.
The storm raged unabated into late afternoon. And when Bernier finished presenting, he hurried up onto the bridge to confer with his fellow decision-makers. For the past 24 hours, four men (with occasional visitors) had huddled frequently around the map table: Bernier, the ship’s captain, Adventure Canada expedition leader Matthew James Swan, and David Reid, assistant expedition leader.
None of the four liked it, but as so often before, Geography was having its way with History. Geography had taken the form of ice, heavy seas, and gale-force winds, while History was seeking to extend the narrative of the Franklin expedition by bringing adventure tourism to the wreck of the Erebus. To that end, we were sailing with a full complement: 197 passengers, 37 Adventure Canada (AC) staff, and 124 ship’s crew. The plan, Swan told me, was to sail the Ocean Endeavour through a narrow channel to anchor among the islands off Adelaide Peninsula. In groups of 30, passengers would take a 40-minute zodiac ride to an island near the Erebus site. There, in a collection of heated tents, they would meet underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada, and also Inuit guardians and elders flown in from Gjoa Haven.
Then, having relinquished any instruments that could record geographical coordinates, they would ride in zodiacs to the Erebus site. There, in wetsuits, the most adventurous would snorkel above the wreck. Others would view it from zodiacs using ‘viewing buckets,’ and still others would watch on-screen as a Remotely Operated Vehicle explored the vessel. We were bidding to make history as the first adventure travellers to visit the site.
Geography declined to cooperate. As the ship sailed toward the channel, the wind blew 30 to 35 knots, gusting to 40, and the swell reached 1.5 metres. If among the islands the wind fell to 15 or 20 knots, Swan said later, he stood ‘ready to make an attempt.’ But the open channel, verified by the Canadian Hydrographic Service, ran north-south, and the wind was blowing from the northwest, which meant the islands near the site would afford no protection. Then a thick fog engulfed the entire region, grounding all flights.
At evening briefing, Swan and Bernier relayed the bad news. We would not be visiting the Erebus site after all. Swan said that the thought of putting zodiacs into the water when the winds were blowing at more than 25 knots, sending out passengers on a 40-minute zodiac ride each way... no, he couldn’t see it: ‘The zodiacs would just flip.’
Bernier revealed that at the Inuit guardians’ five-tent campsite, ‘three of those tents have blown off.’ He had arranged for a Twin Otter to fly people in from Gjoa Haven, but the pilot needed at least 1,000 feet of visibility, and that did not exist.
What about lingering in this vicinity? Speaking from experience, Bernier said that these wind-and-wave conditions would already have stirred up sediment so badly that at best the wreck would become visible in three days. And if the storm continued, we might have to wait a week. Meanwhile, the ship’s captain was concerned about the ice in Peel Sound, along our projected route. On the preceding voyage, Into the Northwest Passage, the Ocean Endeavour had followed a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker through that ice. The slow pace meant the voyage been cut short.
During the past 36 hours, the wind had blown that sea ice westward, opening up a north-south channel along Boothia Peninsula. If we delayed too long, that channel might close. ‘I’m all about adventure,’ Swan said later, ‘and extending my comfort zone. But not when it means putting people in jeopardy. We will not put our clients, our crew, the vessel itself, or the environment, in any sort of danger. Of course we’re disappointed. But also we’re inspired. We’re motivated. We’ll try again next year.’
‘I expect to find human remains,’ Marc-Andre Bernier said next morning in response to a question about diving on the Erebus. ‘Most likely bones, skeletons.’ He noted that Inuit testimony speaks of at least one body on what would appear to be Erebus, and added that he had even seen flesh on bones before. Many artefacts on Erebus are covered in sediment, he said, ‘and if sedimented, the remains could be very well preserved.’ Bernier cited the example of a wreck from 1770, the HMS Swift, which researchers located in Patagonia: ‘They found a complete skeleton in uniform.’
Since discovering the Erebus in 2014, Bernier said, Parks Canada has conducted more than 250 hours of diving on the ship – ‘open water, through the ice, and now we’re setting up to dive from a barge.’ That barge had recently arrived in Gjoa Haven. The top of the Erebus is just ten feet below the surface of the water, and that has facilitated the initial exploration of the vessel.
‘Some of the deck planks are gone,’ Bernier said, ‘and in some instances we have been able to peek inside to the lower decks.’ Using state-of-the-art technology and computerized graphics, the underwater archaeologists have been able to create a three-dimensional, grid-system map of the wreck. From the headquarters of the Royal Marines, they have recovered shoes, ceramic pestles, and medicine bottles reused as shot glasses.
Parks Canada has established a protected zone, a national historic site 10km2, around the Erebus. The Inuit guardians at the site, where three tents had blown off, were now being evacuated.
The Erebus is not badly preserved, Bernier said, but the Terror, discovered in 2016, ‘is in phenomenal condition.’ Researchers identified a ship’s boat, a 23-foot cutter, sitting on the ocean floor directly under the davits designed to release it. They found two outhouses sitting on the top deck. He took a beat and, to laughter, said: ‘Imagine all the DNA samples in there.’
Bernier said that the window over the officer’s mess is partly open. So far, the team has collected about ten hours of video, and the next step will be to introduce Remotely Operated Vehicles into the ship.
Just before lunch, despite the wind, many passengers went out on the top deck as we sat anchored off the southwest coast of King William Island. Those men who, in the late 1840s, abandoned Terror, struggled along this coastline. On his 1857-59 expedition, Leopold McClintock found the skeleton of one of the men who died here, and identified him as Thomas Armitage. Late in the afternoon, with the wind still wailing at more than 20 knots, Swan made it official: we would attempt no landing here. The sun came out and the Ocean Endeavour set off eastward through Simpson Strait, bound for Gjoa Haven.