Photograph courtesy Arctic Research Foundation
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A remotely operated vehicle captured this image of the helm of the H.M.S. Terror. The wooden ship sits upright on the seafloor and appears well preserved.

Photograph courtesy Arctic Research Foundation

Unlikely Tip Leads to Discovery of Historic Shipwreck

Searchers in the Canadian Arctic have found the H.M.S. Terror, which mysteriously disappeared 168 years ago while attempting to navigate the Northwest Passage.

Families in the remote Inuit hamlet of Gjoa Haven are celebrating one of the most important historical discoveries ever made in the Canadian Arctic. With information supplied by an Inuit hunter living in the community, explorers from a Canadian non-profit organization, the Arctic Research Foundation, have located H.M.S. Terror, one of two ships that disappeared 168 years ago during the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.

It’s a big find for researchers who’ve long scoured the Canadian Arctic for clues to the expedition’s fate. “We’ve been having a lot of high fives and man hugs,” says Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation’s chief executive officer and operations director. “We’re celebrating the discovery with the Inuit community, which has been highly supportive.”

The expedition, led by 19th-century naval hero and Arctic explorer Sir John A. Franklin, departed Britain in 1845 with 129 men and two state-of-the-art ships, H.M.S. Erebus and Terror. Each vessel was equipped with an iron-sheathed bow, heated cabins, a library stocked with Charles Dickens novels, and a three-year supply of food. The mission was to find and chart the Northwest Passage, and the expedition seemed, at least on paper, abundantly prepared for anything the high Arctic could throw at it.

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But by June 1847, things had started to unravel. Franklin was dead, possibly from a heart condition, and another 23 men had perished. Ten months later the new expedition commander, Francis Crozier, made a fateful decision. According to a note that he and a colleague tucked into a cairn on King William Island, the expedition’s two ships were locked in sea ice, and Crozier resolved to abandon the vessels and lead his officers and crew across the ice to a trading post on the mainland. Not a single man made it there, however, and the fate of the Franklin crew has been shrouded in mystery ever since.

Two years ago, archaeologists from Parks Canada discovered H.M.S. Erebus, seriously damaged but lying in just 36 feet (11 meters) or so of water, south of King William Island. Since then the archaeologists have been charting the ship’s debris field and searching for Terror, assisted by the Royal Canadian Navy, the Canadian Coast Guard, and the Arctic Research Foundation, an organization that funds and assists scientific research in the Canadian North. (Learn more about the discovery of H.M.S. Erebus here.)

Key Clue Leads to Discovery

On September 2 Sammy Kogvik, an Inuit hunter and a member of an Arctic component of the Canadian Armed Forces, joined the search for the missing ship. While sailing out with Schimnowski and his colleagues, he mentioned something he spotted seven years ago in King William Island’s Terror Bay. It was a tall wooden pole sticking out of the ice—a strange sight in the treeless Arctic.

Kogvik and a hunting companion examined the pole and took a photo, but he lost the evidence when his camera fell unnoticed from his pocket. By the time he went back for another picture, the mast had disappeared under the waves.

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Images of the H.M.S. Terror show that the British naval ship wasn't crushed by sea ice, as was long believed, but remains largely intact.

“Sammy kept quiet about it for seven years because he didn’t have proof,” says Schimnowski. But while chatting with the crew, he mentioned the find, and they decided to check it out.

“Terror Bay is uncharted, but we found a pass in and after just 2.5 hours of searching, we found the ship,” Schimnowski notes. The explorer says that Terror could have been hiding in plain sight for a very long time. “The ship is sitting in 21 to 24 meters (69 to 79 feet) of water,” he observes. “The tall mast could have been sitting meters out of the water for the past 150 years.”

What seems certain is that Terror is well preserved. With the help of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), the team has peered along the deck and through several intact glass windows, spotting a mess hall table, a food tin, wine bottles, the ship’s bell, and other artifacts. But the most haunting discovery to date is the ship’s double-wheeled helm, where the master once stood to steer the ship, now draped in kelp and other sea life.

Based on the ROV footage, Schimnowski thinks the crew may have winterized and battened down the ship in order to get through another brutal Arctic winter. “Everything is still the way it should have been left,” he says. Then at some point, "the crew seem to have taken their belongings off the Terror and re-manned the Erebus.”

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The H.M.S. Erebus and Terror were state-of-the-art naval vessels in 1845, when the Franklin Expedition embarked from Britain.

Exactly what precipitated this decision isn’t clear, but Schimnowski hopes that many of the puzzle’s missing pieces will come to light as researchers begin studying the ship more closely. “An archaeological survey of the site will be the next step, and I think all the details that will come out of that will help build a picture.”

Robert Park, an archaeologist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, points out that Inuit oral history also tells of a campsite, a tent, and a number of dead bodies and graves from the expedition lying on the shores of Terror Bay. Earlier this summer, before learning about the discovery of Terror, Park and archaeologist Douglas Stenton of the Government of Nunavut walked the shores of the bay on a preliminary search for the site.

“We haven’t had any luck so far,” Park says, adding that all traces of the graves might now have vanished. Some Inuit elders say that the site washed away.

If nothing else, the long search for the Franklin Expedition is an object lesson in the value of persistence and patience. For researchers such as Schimnowski, this summer brought the discovery of a lifetime. Even so, the mystery hanging over the Franklin expedition is still a long way from being solved.