Could the wreck of the HMS Erebus reveal the fate of Franklin himself?
A Canadian search team who found one of the lost vessels of the ill-fated Franklin expedition are so eager to get back to their discovery they are considering a dive through the Arctic ice in the spring to get a closer look at the well-preserved wreck of HMS Erebus.
“We’re exploring that possibility as we’re very anxious to get back,” said Ryan Harris, a senior underwater archeologist for Parks Canada.
Searchers discovered British explorer Sir John Franklin’s reinforced 19th-century wooden warship in the Queen Maud Gulf back in September.
But winter was rapidly closing in across Nunavut, and after just 12 hours taking photos and video of the sunken British vessel, underwater archeologists had to pack up and sail out of the Arctic before freeze-up.
The search team has every intention of going back to the site next summer — along with continuing the quest to find the other lost Franklin expedition ship, the HMS Terror.
But if there’s a way to get back to Erebus sooner — and Harris certainly hopes there is — divers could be going through the ice next April in an attempt to unravel more of the mystery of what exactly happened to Franklin and his crew of 128 men as they tried to find the long-sought Northwest Passage.
“It’s not something we routinely do,” Harris says of what would be considered winter diving.
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“It’s not particularly complex, but it would mean that we’d be diving with surface-supplied diving equipment, not scuba, for safety.”
They would also have to set up an ice camp and rely more on air support — whether it’s helicopters or Twin Otters. And the Parks Canada team would likely be working more closely with divers from the Royal Canadian Navy.
Lots of expertise
While winter diving to explore a shipwreck is rare, it’s not unprecedented.
Last spring, Jonathan Moore, one of the members of the Franklin search team, worked with the Navy at the Nunavut wreck site of the HMS Breadalbane.
HMS Breadalbane sank near Beechey Island in 1853 while trying to get supplies to others looking for Franklin’s lost expedition.
“The ice camp was set up by the navy, and their fleet diving unit deployed a remotely operated vehicle to get images and data on the Breadalbane at a depth of 90 metres, quite a challenging wreck site to work on, so yes, there’s definitely precedent,” Harris said.
“There’s certainly a lot going on in the Canadian Arctic, and we have a lot of expertise that we can tap into.”
One of the questions now is whether that technical expertise can tap into the kind of private-public sector partnership that helped find the Franklin ships.
“I’ll be in a listening mode and a position to offer help, but I think this is exciting for Parks Canada because they are really going to be able to build off navy capacity in this case,” says Jim Balsillie, the co-founder and former chairman of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion who was heavily involved in the Franklin search.
Balsillie helped start the Arctic Research Foundation, which refitted a fishing boat now known as the Martin Bergmann research vessel, which assisted in the search.
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Whether or how the foundation might support a winter dive hasn’t been determined, but Balsillie says he is ready for suggestions.
“We will respond to Parks’ lead and the navy’s request in any way, shape or form we can be of help,” says Balsillie, who considers the foundation’s involvement in the Franklin search a “multi-year, probably multi-decade” project.
Harris also sees the exploration of the Erebus wreck as a multi-year project, and one that must be done responsibly and systematically.
“There’s still quite a bit of work to do there,” he says.
“What makes it kind of difficult is the wreck is covered with a blanket of kelp.
Still, what Harris has been able to see so far has left him spellbound by the potential to unravel some of the many questions that have hung over the ill-fated Franklin expedition since the mid-1800s.
“Every dive we made was just a discovery from beginning to end, and you could scarcely take it all in. Everywhere you looked there was something new and really quite remarkable.”
Now, underwater archeologists are reviewing the hundreds of photographs and a couple hours of video they were able to take in September.
They are carefully plotting and planning their next moves in investigating what Harris describes as a “rather complex structure” that is overall “quite remarkably well-preserved.”
One of the challenges is to determine how divers can get inside the wreck.
“A couple of us had the opportunity to drop down between the exposed deck beams and have a look around, but we weren’t penetrating below the decks at all.
“We were just kind of having a look and that tells us there’s a lot of room inside the forward half of the ship,” says Harris.
“You could look forward and see the ship’s galley stove. You could see the forward hatchway going down into the hold.”
Among the questions, could Erebus reveal anything further about the fate of Franklin himself?
“You don’t know at this point. The potential is almost limitless,” says Harris, noting that preservation conditions on an Arctic shipwreck can be “astoundingly favourable to the survival of organic materials, even including paper.”
Maybe there will be journals from crewmen, with handwritten accounts sealed up tight in a satchel.
Will there be human remains? (None have been spotted so far.)
Will there be anything that helps settle the questions around whether lead poisoning or botulism played a significant role in the sad demise of Franklin’s men?
Will there be clues that reveal whether Erebus drifted on its own to where it was found, or whether it had been re-manned, after the ships that had been beset by ice for two years and abandoned in 1848 off King William Island?
Maybe there will be evidence that reveals what the men were trying to do if they did indeed re-man the ship and navigate it into the Queen Maud Gulf.
“Were they just trying to get closer to the mainland so they could proceed on foot? Did they still hold out a forlorn hope of one day navigating to the Beaufort Sea?” Harris wonders.
“Hopefully time will tell.”
Announcing the Winners of Scubaverse’s November 2022 Underwater Photo & Video Contests
Another bumper month packed with amazing images and videos from around the world! It has certainly been another great month for entries in both contests – your underwater photos and videos are just getting better and better! Thanks to all who entered.
If you’re not a winner this month, then please do try again. December’s photo and video contests are now open.
Tips for… Refreshing Skills
A hugely important subject, and one that should be considered by any diver regardless of your training level. Just like anything, sometimes life gets in the way, we get sidetracked and before you know it, it’s been 2 months out of the water. It may not seem like a lot, but we naturally start to forget things when they are not used. We slow down our actions as we are out of practise and have to think a little more in order to retrieve the information to help make decisions.
There’s nothing wrong with this of course, we cannot always be diving! But it is important that we refresh before getting straight back into it. We obviously conduct a lot of refresher courses here at the dive centre, but we are also realistic, knowing that not everyone will want to pay to refresh their skills with an instructor. That’s also fine too, just be sensible.
Our tips for this would be the following; some will likely seem a little common sense… but it’s always good to have a reminder right?!
First off, when getting back to diving, choose a buddy that you usually dive with or someone that has a higher level of competency in diving. This will give you the reassurance in the water and not have to be worrying about the others person whilst getting back into it yourself.
Secondly, choose a site that you know. Don’t be jumping straight in having seen an amazing new site that you want to try out… that can wait for another time. You have already had a break in your actual diving, without having to then also consider navigating and a new dive plan.
Next, try to leave out the brand new equipment. It’s great that getting back into diving you have decided to buy yourself a new drysuit, fins and BCD, but it all might be a little bit much. Let’s concentrate on just getting back into the water and then move onto those new additions. This kind of change can make even the best of divers anxious.
Last but not least, there’s nothing wrong with staying shallow. Our first dive to get back into it, does not need to break our dive depth record. Stay shallow, enjoy the marine life at this depth, and keep the dive nice and easy. Practise those skills if you would like to, make sure you know where all your equipment is positioned and get comfortable. The ocean isn’t going anywhere… there’s always tomorrow to get in for another!
Find out more at www.duttonsdivers.com
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