Arctic search for Franklin's lost ships continues

Canadians are heading back to the Northwest Passage this summer to continue searching for the wrecks of Sir John Franklin's lost ships from 1845.

Researchers will also explore wreck of HMS Investigator, found in 2010

Canadians are heading back to the Northwest Passage this summer to continue searching for the wrecks of Sir John Franklin's lost ships from 1845.

Skulls of members of the Franklin expedition were discovered by William Skinner and Paddy Gibson in 1945 at King William Island in Nunavut. This summer's search, which begins Aug. 21, will focus on an area just west of the island. (National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press)

Archeologists with Parks Canada will use an autonomous underwater vehicle to scan the ocean floor, as part of this year's search for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, federal Environment Minister Peter Kent said Thursday.

"This is the year I hope that we will solve one of the great mysteries of the history of Arctic exploration — the location and the final resting place of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror," Kent told reporters in Ottawa.

The two ships disappeared during the British explorer's ill-fated 1845 expedition to chart the Northwest Passage. Neither Franklin nor any of his 128 crewmen returned.

Historians in Canada, Britain and beyond have since been captivated by Franklin's doomed journey and the possible resting places of the Erebus and Terror, but only traces of the expedition have ever been found.

Search begins in August

The Parks Canada research teams will begin searching for Erebus and Terror on Aug. 21, weather permitting, in an area west of King William Island in Nunavut.

This will be the third summer in recent years that the Canadian government is funding a large-scale expedition to find Franklin's lost ships.

Archeologists found the wreck of HMS Investigator at the bottom of Mercy Bay, near Banks Island in the Northwest Territories, in July 2010. (Parks Canada)

Similar searches conducted in 2008 and 2010 failed to locate the wrecks, although the 2008 search uncovered small bits of copper sheeting that may have belonged to Franklin's ships.

A search effort was called off in 2009 because Parks Canada could not secure a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker to assist with the project.

"This year we are going to move northward and we're going to work west of King William Island, near the Royal Geographical [Society] Islands area," said Marc-André Bernier, a Parks Canada archeologist who is leading the search team.

The underwater vehicle, which is being supplied by the University of Victoria, can move on its own while it detects and maps objects it finds.

Bernier said researchers have also relied on traditional knowledge from Inuit like Louis Kamookak of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, who said he believes the searchers are on the right track.

"We did find some nails and copper sheeting on those islands and Inuit camps, so that's good evidence that the boats are around that place," Kamookak, a historian who has collected Franklin-related anecdotes from elders and ancestors, told CBC News.

Teams to explore HMS Investigator

Parks Canada will also spend this summer exploring the wreck of HMS Investigator, a ship that was abandoned in 1854 during its search for Franklin's expedition.

HMS Investigator and a cache belonging to captain Robert McClure and the graves of three crew members were found in July 2010 in Banks Island's Mercy Bay in the Northwest Territories.

Archeologists will further study the Investigator between July 10-25 by diving underwater to capture images of the wreck for the first time.

Researchers will also explore McClure's cache, as well as an ancient Inuit site that has turned up artifacts such as stone tools, animal bones and possible tent foundations.

The ship itself is just offshore from the boundaries of Aulavik National Park, while McClure's cache and the ancient Inuit site are both within the park.