I would take the Northwest Passage

John Brannen
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Parks Canada archeological divers find HMS Investigator preserved in Mercy Bay where ship became trapped some 160 years earlier

Two years after Sir John Franklin set out to find a Northwest Passage through the Arctic in 1846, concern was beginning to grow that something had gone wrong. One ship that set out to find Franklin was HMS Investigator, under the command of Captain Robert McClure.

Part two of a three-part series recalling the discovery of HMS Investigator and the continued search for Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin and his ships

The aptly named wooden sailing ship was 118 ft. long and 28 ft. wide and fitted with iron riders to strengthen the ship’s hull against ice. After setting out in 1850, Investigator would fall victim to the dense and unforgiving Arctic ice.

After wintering in what McClure named the Bay of God’s Mercy, there was no sign the ship would be freed from the grip of the ice. As the hope of a warm summer gave way once again to winter, food, provisions and morale began to fail.

“It would have been a mercy had we never entered it,” noted the ship’s surgeon Alexander Armstrong.

On Apr. 6, 1853, just as the captain and crew were contemplating a perilous journey south on foot, a miracle occurred.

A crewmember from HMS Resolute appeared from the bleak, monotonous landscape informing them to abandon ship and make haste for his ship. And though Resolute would also become trapped in ice shortly afterwards, Investigator’s captain and crew would make it back to England’s shores in October 1854.

There were five fatalities – three perished in Mercy Bay of scurvy, and two once HMS Resolute had rescued them.

Though McClure didn’t return to Britain with information on Franklin’s lost expedition he did pick up where Franklin left off. By ship and sledge on land, McClure had discovered the Northwest Passage and is credited for its discovery.

Investigator, according to British and Inuit reports, would remain locked in the ice for a few years before slipping beneath the cold Arctic waters. What remained of the ship’s supplies, including lifeboats, coal and other items were left on shore as a cache in case other in peril needed them.

Investigating Investigator

For Ryan Harris, a senior marine archaeologist with the underwater archaeology service in Parks Canada, HMS Investigator has always been part of the Franklin legend.

“We took an interest in the ship because some of the stories are intertwined,” said Harris. “A lot of figures from the Arctic expeditions appear and reappear, both the ship and the men.”

James Clark Ross, a famed explorer who was sent to search for Franklin aboard the HMS Enterprise, had explored the Antarctic coast aboard Franklin’s ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in the early 1840s.

“We deliberately arranged to look in the are of Mercy Bay and hoped to find Investigator,” said Harris. “The conditions would have been fairly treacherous for McClure. He called it the Bay of God’s mercy and thought it was a miracle.”

But Arctic ice is unpredictable and unforgiving.

The bay is currently surrounded on land by Aulavik National Park and managed by Parks Canada, the nation’s second most northern national park after Quttinirpaaq National Park on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut.

In 2010, Harris and the team were in their second season of searching for the lost Franklin ships. After several remote flights they arrived at Polar Bear Cabin on Banks Island.

Harris noted that Investigator’s cache of artifacts was known for decades.

“The site was also well known to the Inuit, who fashioned spear heads from metal barrel coils.”

But getting set up to do research in Canada’s north is no small feat, according to Harris.

“It was an interesting experience. One of the challenges of north is that when weather conditions allow you to search you’ve got to do it. Conditions are rarely ideal.”

In the case of HMS Investigator, Harris and the diving team had a small area to cover and hoped that there wouldn’t be ice. Initially their sonar wasn’t working but after about 15 minutes of testing, something curious appeared on the radar.




On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn


Organizations: Parks Canada, HMS Enterprise

Geographic location: Arctic, Mercy Bay, Northwest Passage Bay of God England Britain Aulavik National Park Quttinirpaaq National Park Ellesmere Island Nunavut Canada

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