Canadian officials will return to the Northwest Passage this summer in search of Sir John Franklin's long-lost ships, after efforts were postponed last year.

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Federal searchers say they will take sonar equipment to the waters southwest of King William Island, in the Northwest Passage, in the hopes of finding the ships underwater. ((CBC))

Parks Canada began a three-year effort in 2008 to find the famed British explorer's ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, which went missing more than 160 years ago in the High Arctic.

The government-sponsored search was postponed last summer because Parks Canada could not get on a military or Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker.

This time, federal searchers say, they will be on board the coast guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier for three weeks in August. The icebreaker will deploy two smaller vessels that will carry sonar equipment on board.

"There's little doubt that Franklin's lost ships are probably the most sought-after shipwrecks in Canada," Ryan Harris, a senior marine archeologist with Parks Canada, told CBC News on Monday.

Ships may be intact

Historians have been fascinated with Franklin's doomed 1845 journey to the Northwest Passage, but previous search expeditions have not found the Erebus and Terror.

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Inuit historian Louis Kamookak speaks at a 2008 announcement unveiling the federal government's three-year search effort for the Erebus and Terror. ((CBC))

The Parks Canada search team will focus this summer on the waters southwest of King William Island in the Queen Maud Gulf, where Inuit oral history suggests the ships may have sunk intact.

"One of the ships drifted to the west and was crushed in ice," said Inuit historian Louis Kamookak of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, who has been working with the federal team.

"The other ship managed to go down the channel towards the southwest of King William Island into the safer waters, where there's less current and the ice movement is a lot calmer in the area in the summer," he added.

The federal searches were in the same area for six weeks in 2008, primarily mapping out the ocean floor. Harris said that this year searchers will use the sonar instruments to search for the wrecks.

Ships, crew disappeared

In 1845, Franklin had set out from England aboard the vessels, in hopes of exploring and mapping the Northwest Passage. Neither he nor any of his 128 crewmen ever returned.

By 1848, two ships and an overland party were searching for traces of the ships and crew.

A total of eight expeditions were launched in the 12 years following Franklin's disappearance, funded by a range of financial backers, from the British Navy to the Hudson's Bay Company to Franklin's wife.

Only traces of the expedition have ever been found.

"It's a very exciting story — Victorian, Gothic, a horror story that essentially unfolded across the Arctic expanse," Harris said.