Franklin ship discovery just the 'beginning'

The discovery of a lost vessel from the Franklin expedition is in many ways only the start of unravelling the mystery of what happened to the ill-fated mid-19th century voyage and understanding its significance now.

Parks Canada searchers returning to North after announcement of find

RAW: Parks Canada's first Franklin footage

9 years ago
Duration 1:17
Parks Canada released underwater video Tuesday of the newly-located Franklin ship.

Searchers looking for the two lost vessels of the Franklin expedition may have found a ship, but the discovery in frigid waters off Nunavut is in many ways only the start of unravelling the mystery of the ill-fated mid-19th century voyage and understanding its significance now. 

"On the one hand, it's an achievement, but on the other hand it's a beginning," says Jim Balsillie, the former chairman and co-chief executive of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion, who is involved in the Parks Canada-led search.

"It's a beginning hopefully for Canadians to build a stronger knowledge and engagement with the Arctic…. I see it as a tremendous catalyst of nation-building."

For others, the discovery also marks a new beginning of a more personal nature in the efforts to unravel the sad saga of what happened to British naval hero Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128 men as they tried to find the long-sought Northwest Passage.  

Location of the recently discovered Franklin expedition ship. (Canadian Press)

"This has completely opened up again a new chapter in the mystery and hopefully now we will find out a lot more," said Adrian Gell, a great-great-great-grandson of Franklin.

"I think it's a fantastic job that this current expedition has done in completing the find," he said in an interview Tuesday from his home northwest of London, England.

Gell was "over the moon" with word one of the ships — either HMS Erebus or HMS Terror —  had been found, something he learned only when a photographer from the Daily Telegraph arrived at his garden gate.

"This discovery will hopefully open the doors where a huge amount [of] information can be gleaned and it will hopefully then reveal exactly where [the ships] went, what happened to Franklin and his crew, how much further they got, etc., etc. — the whole list of things one can think about."

Which ship?

The Franklin family would be "absolutely fascinated" to find out what happened to their famous relative, Gell said.

"I think if a member of your family goes missing under extraordinary circumstances and incredibly brave circumstances … it's always great for the family to have some sort of closure on it."

John Geiger, president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, holds an iron fitting called a davit from a Royal Navy ship, the key piece of evidence that led to the discovery of a ship believed to be from the Franklin expedition. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Right now, though, what would excite him most, he says, is if searchers would "identify which of the two ships this is that they've found and then, secondly, to locate the second of the two ships."

Members of the Parks Canada team, who had returned from the North to Ottawa for Tuesday's announcement, were quickly going back to Nunavut to continue this year's search.

But their next steps are not clear, and underwater archeologists involved in the find were not available for comment Tuesday afternoon.

"Our archeologists are just back from the Canadian Arctic and are taking some rest before returning to continue their search in Victoria Strait," a media relations assistant said in an email.

But those who have been involved in the search are enthusiastic about their potential for continued involvement.

Parks Canada "is the leader in this so we follow their lead on the archeological part of it," says Balsillie, who is a co-founder of the Arctic Research Foundation, which refitted a fishing boat into the Martin Bergmann research vessel that is helping out in the search.

Smaller vessels

"My personal view of it is there's a very strong opportunity for smaller vessels, but ice-ready vessels, to support [the search] in the Arctic because taking a big icebreaker is a very, very expensive exercise for extended periods," said Balsillie.

And the icebreaker had to work hard this year, as ice proved a particular challenge for searchers, especially in the northern Victoria Strait that had been a priority area in the 2014 quest.

Close-up of the Royal Navy broad arrows, stamped at the base of the davit heel. The number 12 is also visible. The discovery was made on Sept. 1, 2014. (Douglas Stenton, Government of Nunavut)

But that same ice also may have, in ways, helped searchers home in on the spot where the ship was ultimately found.

"Because of very, very difficult ice conditions in the north, we all redeployed south this summer and that's why we found this vessel," said Balsillie, who had returned to Ontario from the North just before the ship was discovered.

"Something tells me everybody's pretty interested to get back up there next summer and see if they can find a second vessel some place in the North, which was Plan A until the ice got so bad this summer."

Others who were involved in this year's search hope there will be a return voyage next summer, too.

"Late last week, we were already starting to talk about a 2015 expedition," says Joseph Frey, chair of the College of Fellows of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

"There is still the second ship to be found and there's going to be a lot of archeological work done on the ship that has been found," Frey said.

New technologies

"I think our chances with the new technologies, with the public/private co-operation that we had on this expedition, that chances are pretty good that we'll eventually find the second ship," Frey said.

The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is creating an educational program and brought the polar tourism company One Ocean Expeditions into the project fold. The firm based out of Whistler, B.C provided a vessel — the 400-foot One Ocean Voyager  — that can push around, but not break, ice and which acted as a base for some of Parks Canada's research efforts.

"Certainly we could bring more to the table," said Andrew Prossin, managing director of One Ocean Expeditions, which also did survey work and moved equipment around for the searchers.

"We'll come back next year if there's a project and contribute to that as well."

This year's find also opens up the question of just what to do with the vessel — still the property of the Royal Navy — that has been found.

Frey, who returned from the North to Toronto on Monday, says the preferred option would be to leave it where it is.

"Really the best thing would be is to leave the ships down there, to have them thoroughly studied by archeologists and maybe bring up a few pieces that represent the ship, maybe the ship's bells, things like that that could actually be put on display in a museum."

Spreading stories

Beyond what to do with the ship that has been found, Balsillie sees the significance of the recent discovery extending to include building a stronger Canadian nation.

"I think it's a catalyst towards getting Canadians more engaged with the Arctic," he said.

"It's a catalyst for economic development. It's a catalyst for archeology and science. It's a catalyst to understand our history."

The Arctic holds many stories, he says, and Canadians outside the North need to know more.

"I think it's meaningful to Canadians at many, many powerful levels and I think this could be a catalyst to bring forward the stories."