Nunavut shipwreck confirmed as Sir John Franklin's HMS Terror

A shipwreck found off the shores of Nunavut's King William Island is indeed HMS Terror, lost in Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition, Parks Canada confirms.

Parks Canada 'will work closely with Inuit in Nunavut' on co-ownership of Franklin artifacts

HMS Terror was lost during Sir John Franklin's doomed expedition to find the Northwest Passage. The wreck was discovered earlier this month on a tip from an Inuit crew member aboard the Arctic Research Foundation's Martin Bergmann vessel. (Engraving by George Back)

It took eight days before the government of Canada was notified of one of the biggest discoveries in the Arctic putting to rest a nearly two-century old mystery.

Parks Canada confirmed Monday a shipwreck found off the shores of Nunavut's King William Island is indeed HMS Terror, lost in Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage.

The Arctic Research Foundation reported earlier this month that it had found the Terror on Sept. 3 "in pristine condition" in Nunavut's Terror Bay on King William Island, north of where Franklin's other ship, HMS Erebus, was found in 2014.

The foundation's Martin Bergmann research vessel spent the next few days filming the underwater wreck unbeknownst to the rest of team nearly 100 kilometres away surveying the Victoria Strait. 

The Bergmann was part of the Parks Canada-led search for the Terror, which also involved the Canadian Coast Guard's Sir Wilfrid Laurier icebreaker and the Royal Canadian Navy's HMCS Shawinigan.

It wasn't until Sept. 11 that the federal government was notified of the foundation's discovery.

"We acknowledge there was a delay in the information coming our way," said Marc-André Bernier, the manager for underwater archeology with Parks Canada, in a conference call Monday.

Bad weather delayed the team three days before it was able to make its way to Terror Bay.

'Could very well preserve... delicate materials'

Once there, three days were spent examining the ship, including one day of diving.

The work confirmed reports by the Arctic Research Foundation — the ship's cabins and gallery windows are largely intact, the hatches closed up and many of the partitions potentially still in place, says Parks Canada senior underwater archeologist Ryan Harris.

"In terms of the contents of the ship, that offers opportunities that just boggles the imagination," Harris said on a conference call Monday.

"It's a largely sealed environment that could very well preserve remarkably well otherwise delicate materials, like organic materials, written documents, charts and all matter of material like that."

Ultimately, Harris said the goal is to try and figure out how the Terror ended up where it is.

As the story goes, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus became locked in ice in 1846, and the expedition to find the Northwest Passage resulted in the deaths of 129 men.

A still from a video produced by the Arctic Research Foundation appears to show the wheel of HMS Terror. (Arctic Research Foundation)

Joint ownership

Parks Canada said it will work closely in partnership with Inuit organizations, particularly the Nunavut government and the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, on joint ownership of artifacts from both the Terror and Erebus.

The Arctic Research Foundation reported that the Terror was discovered with many artifacts on board and that several, such as the ship's wheel and bell, have been well preserved.

"Joint ownership of the artifacts from HMS Erebus with the Inuit Heritage Trust sets the stage for us to tell the stories of Nunavut's history, culture and heritage," Catherine McKenna, minister responsible for Parks Canada, said in the news release.

"I am thrilled about the discovery of HMS Terror, and am just as committed to working with the government of Nunavut and Inuit partners to protect and present all of the Franklin artifacts."

In the same release, Nunavut Minister of Culture and Heritage George Kuksuk said the discovery of the ships is "an important time for Nunavut and Canada," and that he looks forward to working with the federal government "as we move into the next phase of celebrating this discovery."


John Van Dusen is a journalist with CBC North based in Yellowknife. Find him on Twitter @jvdCBC.