Canada’s attention captured as HMS Investigator explored

John Brannen
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The final part in a three-part series recalling the discovery of HMS Investigator and the continued search for Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin and his ships.

There was just a small opening in the ice of Mercy Bay, Northwest Territories. But Ryan Harris, a senior marine archaeologist with the underwater archaeology service in Parks Canada, knew this might be his only opportunity.

“We went out to test the equipment and knew the ice-free waters were likely near the site of the HMS Investigator,” he said.

About 160 years earlier, Investigator had become trapped in ice while searching for the lost Franklin expedition. Its crew was forced to abandon ship after realizing their ship was doomed.

About three minutes after the equipment testing had begun, the sonar picked up an anomaly 11 metres down. After several passes over the site, it began to dawn on Harris and his team.

They had found Investigator.

There was no ‘Aha’ moment, said Harris, noting it was lower key.

“It was gradual, since anomalous geology can be really beguiling when it comes to searching for something like a wreck structure.”

There were concerns that the wreck would be unrecognizable since the ice in Mercy Bay reaches to the ocean floor. While the hull is virtually intact and well preserved, the masts and rigging were ripped apart from the ice.

The team had no diving gear in 2010 when the wreck was discovered so a remotely operate vehicle (ROV) provided the first up-close glimpses. It showed that Investigator was sitting upright on the ocean floor.

“Unfortunately, we only had a few hours because the ice was back and filled the bay,” said Harris.

The timing for the discovery couldn’t be better since the team had prearranged a meeting with the then minister responsible for Parks Canada, Jim Prentice.

“He arrived and was pleased, as you can imagine,” said Harris. “He was very articulate at sharing the importance of the discovery with Canadians.”

In 2011, Parks Canada decided to send the full dive team to Mercy Bay and two zodiacs to film. He noted that in July, the team had round-the-clock daylight. In all, the team made nine days, did 100 dives and recovered several artifacts.

“We thought we’d take a few samples, though we were quite selective,” said Harris. “We focused on items that won’t be preserved where they lie.”

The conservation can be very scientific and complicated. A musket, which was retrieved from the wreck, will take years to stabilize. The cold temperatures help to inhibit the wood-eating organisms and the darkness tends to inhibit growth. That’s the least of Harris’s concerns.

“The ice is the main threat, since this area is covered by ice 90 per cent of the year.”

Since the discovery Harris and the diving team have mapped the exposed structure of the 36-metre-long ship, which is intact from bow to stern.

Now that Investigator has been found, it falls under the protection of the Northwest Territories government. It can only be explored, for example, with an archeology permit from the territory. Interestingly, it’s also protected through the United Kingdom since the ship was on active service at the time of its demise.

“Actually, the authorities in Great Britain were there some of the first to know about the discovery,” said Harris. “It’s a common courtesy.”


Investigator and Franklins lost expedition

While attention in 2010 and 2011 was on researching Investigator, Parks Canada has yet to return to the site. The focus now returns to their primary objective: locating Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror.

“It’s true, Investigator doesn’t help us in finding Franklin’s ships,” said Harris. “It does tell us what we might find when we locate Erebus and Terror. It’s quite possible the ships are in immaculate condition if they’re located where it’s relatively ice free.”

While the adrenaline rush of discovering a shipwreck is incomparable, long periods away from home in remote areas do take their toll on an archeological diver.

“It can be tough, especially missing the best months of summer in Ottawa for summers in the Arctic,” he said. “Let’s just say our wives could be happier.”

However, the diving team has invested countless hours in seeking Franklin’s ships. Having spent this much time on it, they want to see it through.

“For me, it would be a truly enthralling thing to explore these sites,” said Harris. “We might learn something about the final throes of Franklin’s doomed voyage and potentially validate the long-disregarded Inuit testimony.”

For Harris, it’s a humbling thought.

“We stand on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us, people like Captain McClure and the crew of investigator. Our search continues.”

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn

Organizations: Parks Canada

Geographic location: Mercy Bay, Northwest Territories, Canada United Kingdom Ottawa Arctic

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Recent comments

  • Richard Jones
    January 16, 2014 - 03:39

    Absolutely fantastic work, good luck with the search for Erebus and Terror. It would be great to see what they look like after all these years. People like you guys show the world history that cannot be viewed by everyday people and the results you show are priceless.