August 17, 2008

Canada Searches For Legendary British Explorer

Officials in Canada announced Friday that they will begin a new search for the two ships of British explorer Sir John Franklin. Franklin's fate, along with that of 128 of his officers and crew of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, have remained locked in the frozen Arctic for over a century and a half.

The search efforts are part of Canada's initiative to assert control over the Northwest Passage, and are also driven by concern that melting ice due to warming temperatures may allow others to find and steal the remains.

"Obviously more of this water will be traversable in more parts of the year so we want to find it before Hollywood," Canada's Environment Minister John Baird told The Associated Press, following his announcement of the Parks-Canada search.

Franklin and his men mysteriously vanished in the mid 1800s during an expedition to find the legendary Northwest Passage, a route that spans from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic archipelago. The passage gained notoriety among European explorers who had long sought a shorter route to Asia.

Franklin's disappearance prompted one of the largest rescue efforts in history, which resulted in the discovery of the passage.

Robert Grenier, a senior underwater archaeologist with Parks Canada, will lead the search, aboard the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier.

"It's very exciting. It's like an Indiana Jones adventure. It's searching for a lost under water tomb," Baird said during an interview with The Associated Press.

The mission comes amid Canada's move to assert sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, where melting ice has unlocked the very shipping route Franklin's men were seeking. The United States claims the potentially oil-rich route lies within international territory. 

Grenier said the melting ice eases navigation of the polar waters, but also opens the once inaccessible Passage to grave robbers.  Indeed, Hollywood producers and others have gone as far as paying local aboriginal Inuits to assist in the search for the ships.

"Our objective is to find and protect the wreck, because they are in danger of being found by people who don't have the know-how and the same intention and preoccupation that we have," Grenier said.

Baird said Canada's Arctic was a key initiative for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who is expected to travel to the area later this month.

"There's certainly a lot of riches up there," he said.

"There's everything from environmental treasures to resource treasures."

The six-week mission begins Monday, with two more six-week expeditions scheduled during the next two summers should the initial mission fail to produce results.

Franklin's vessels are among the most coveted finds in marine archaeology.
Enticing traces have been found over the years, and the bodies of three crewmen were found during the 1980s: two English seamen, John Hartnell, 25, and royal Marine William Braine, 33, were exhumed in 1986, and the perfectly preserved remains of petty officer John Torrington, 20, were recovered in an ice-filled coffin in 1984.  However, the ships have never been spotted.

Experts believe the crews abandoned the ships in 1848 as they sought safety when the ships became locked in the ice near King William Island.

Relief efforts financed by Lady Franklin, the Royal Navy and the Hudson's Bay Co., scoured the region for more than a decade without success.  Grenier and his team plan to cover a 150-to 300-square mile area using sonar to scour the surrounding islands for evidence of the ships or their crew.

Louie Kamoukak, an Inuit researcher, will assist the team in their search by providing accounts passed down from 19th-century ancestors who witnessed the crew's lonely end.

"For the first time in over 160 years, I feel that the witnesses of (the) Franklin tragedy events have a chance to really contribute to an important search party," he said.

Author Dorothy Harley Eber gathered verbal accounts from the Inuit in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, while researching an upcoming book on the Northwest Passage.

She told the AP that Inuit lore describes "white men who were starving" as late as the winter of 1850 on the Royal Geographical Society Island, meaning some of Franklin's crew may have survived longer than previously believed.  The Inuit elders believe greasy patches on the islands' shores identify the places where the stranded crewmembers used seal oil blubber for to cook and stay warm, she said.


Image 1: Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Image 2: Map of the probable routes taken by Erebus and Terror during Franklin's lost expedition. Disko Bay (5) to Beechey Island, in 1845. Around Cornwallis Island (1), in 1845. Beechey Island down Peel Sound between Prince of Wales Island (2) and Somerset Island (3) and the Boothia Peninsula (4) to near King William Island in 1846. Disko Bay (5) is about 3,200 kilometers (2,000 mi) from the mouth of the Mackenzie River (6). Image Courtesy Wikipedia


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