Investigator a 'time capsule' for 19th-century Arctic exploration

HMS Investigator ultimately failed in its mission to find Sir John Franklin's ships, but the discovery of its wreck offered insight into that search.
A Parks Canada archeologist dives on the wreck of HMS Investigator in 2011. (Parks Canada)

HMS Investigator sailed from England before dawn on Jan. 20, 1850, embarking under the command of Robert McClure on its second voyage in as many years to try to find the missing ships of Sir John Franklin's polar expedition.

Two years earlier, Investigator had searched in the North American Arctic, arriving via the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage but finding no sign of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the ships that are the focus of a search led by Parks Canada this summer.

HMS Investigator is shown on the north coast of Baring Island in the Arctic in this 1851 drawing. (Public Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

On its second voyage, Investigator and its sister ship Enterprise sailed through the Bering Sea to search for Franklin in the western Arctic, as the British Admiralty believed his ships may have made it to this area and were frozen in.

"The Investigator was the first exploring vessel to navigate the Beaufort Sea, and the first exploration vessel to spend a winter anchored in the ice flows in the Prince of Wales Strait in 1850-51," says polar historian and author Glenn Stein. 

While the Investigator ultimately failed in its mission to find Franklin's ships, the discovery of its wreck in 2010 offered insight into that quest, and ultimately provides a legacy that extends beyond historical artifacts.

Before going any further east in the ice-choked Beaufort Sea, Investigator was joined by HMS Enterprise, captained by Sir Richard Collinson, McClure's superior. 

"The Admiralty, in order not to have a repeat of what was happening with the Franklin expedition, insisted that ships stay together and that they search in pairs so if there's a problem with one of the ships and it should sink, survivors could get aboard the other ship and escape to safety," Stein says.   It was a good strategy, at least in theory.  Investigator and Enterprise were supposed to enter the ice together, but McClure saw an opportunity to leave his superior officer, with whom he was often at odds, behind.

No safety net

"McClure's greatest weakness," says Stein, "was his driving ambition and this is why he entered the ice on Investigator without a safety net — the Enterprise.  It was this ambition that forced him to take huge risks in the expedition, like going into the ice alone, and to risk the lives of his men. 

"But after all, there was this holy grail of finding the Northwest Passage and that was a big inducement. It meant fame and monetary reward. He felt like he really had this last chance to grab fame by discovering the passage and sail through it---and he was going to do it, come hell or high water."

Parks Canada archeologists return to the surface of the ocean after diving on HMS Investigator. (Parks Canada)

By 1853, Investigator was in exactly the same predicament that befell Franklin's two ships — it was stranded in ice and in danger of sinking. 

At this point, though, the two stories diverge.

After 166 years, Erebus and Terror are still missing. But two years ago, Investigator was found. Using sonar technology, Parks Canada archeologists detected the Investigator, sunk but relatively intact, in Mercy Bay, off the north coast of Banks Island. 

It was there that McClure had decided to overwinter after being blocked from going east by ice conditions, making what Stein describes as "a near-fatal mistake." 

Whereas the entire Franklin contingent of 129 perished in the Arctic, luck was with McClure. His crew suffered only three losses before being rescued at Mercy Bay by another expedition looking for Franklin and his men.

"McClure and his crew were beside themselves. They absolutely could not believe that they were seeing their countrymen —fellow Royal Navy sailors — again," says Stein.

Sonar discovery

Archeologically speaking, McClure's luck continued into the 21st century.

In the summer of 2010, Ryan Harris, a Parks Canada marine archeologist, and his colleague, Jonathon Moore, detected the sunken Investigator using a "towfish" side-scan sonar device trailing on a cable from a small boat. 

Some parts of the wreck, including the masts, had been severely damaged and carried away by grinding ice, Harris says.  But the remainder, sitting eight metres below the surface in Mercy Bay, is "intact from the weather deck to keel, with much of the contents entombed within."  

The wreck of HMS Investigator is visible on the sea floor in this sonar image. (Parks Canada)

Last summer, Harris's archeological team completed more than 100 dives of the site, observing a cornucopia of artifacts, including sailors' Arctic service boots, muskets, hemp rigging still preserved in the rigging blocks and sail cloth, as well as pieces of glass, most likely from the skylight over McClure's cabin.

"It was quite surreal, bearing in mind this site is located a full 850 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, so this is an incredibly remote location, and one of the most difficult places to get to on the planet," says Harris.

The sunken Investigator is "the only example of a 19th century Royal Navy ship of polar exploration that has ever been found," says Harris, noting that it is "a neat repository of dramatically changing Industrial Age technology." 

It includes steam engine power and heating, a deck-mounted steam-powered fire-fighting pump, vulcanized rubber, and iron plating on the bow "as a chisel for cleaving its way through thin layers of ice---in a manner, a prototypical icebreaker," Harris says.

'Largely intact'

However, HMS Investigator's legacy is more than significant historical artifacts.   "The crew members were the first Europeans, and probably the first human beings, who actually traversed a route through the Northwest Passage, by sledge and foot, because the ship was stuck," says historian Stein.

"Investigator, in some ways, is a more important find than either two of the Franklin ships because it's largely intact," Stein says.

"So you have a vessel that is a time capsule with a lot of its contents of Arctic exploration of that period, and it represents a situation that mirrors the Franklin expedition — and nearly suffered the same fate."    Great Britain still legally owns Investigator, and Canada recognizes that, says Parks Canada's Harris. 

"We are in discussions with the Royal Navy, as well as the British High Commission in Ottawa, telling them what our plans are, and to demonstrate we have the best interests of the shipwreck site as an archeological and cultural legacy site."