North

Inuit knowledge helped discover the Erebus and Terror, now it will help protect the sites

Studying, preserving and protecting the Erebus and Terror wrecks is now the priority, and Inuit will play a key role in what promises to be a major archeological project.

Program will see Gjoa Haven residents camp on the land near the wrecks to watch over them

A Parks Canada archeologist at the stern of the wreck of HMS Terror looks through one of the captain's cabin windows. (Parks Canada)

Discovering British polar explorer Sir John Franklin's doomed vessels, the Erebus and Terror, was only the first step, and may have been the easiest.

Studying, preserving and protecting the archeological sites is now the priority, and Inuit will play a key role in what promises to be a major archeological project.

"The is one of the largest and most important underwater excavations ever conducted in Canada," said Marc-Andre Bernier, manager of underwater archeology for Parks Canada.

Resting on the Arctic sea floor under 11 and 24 metres of water, respectively, the Erebus and Terror were discovered in 2014 and 2016, thanks largely to knowledge gleaned from Inuit oral tradition.

In the case of the Terror, it was an Inuit crew member from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, who essentially located the wreck by recalling a mast seen in years past sticking through the ice where the Terror was discovered.

Residents of Gjoa Haven, the closest community to the wrecks, will play a key role in protecting the sites from trespassers through the Inuit Guardian program launched last Friday.

Marc-Andre Bernier, manager of underwater archeology for Parks Canada, said the excavations of the Erebus and Terror wreck sites will be the largest underwater project of it's kind ever undertaken in Canada. (Parks Canada)

The idea is to "set up some camps near the sites of Erebus and Terror, and have community members occupy that part of the land and watch over the sites, in order to ensure that there's no activities that could be detrimental to the protection of the sites," Bernier said.

Beginning with the Erebus site, four residents from Gjoa Haven will accompany a diving expedition scheduled to begin later this month, and begin looking for suitable camp sites.

This season, along with the dives, researchers will select sites for camps in Terror Bay and near the Erebus wreck. After the camps are established, the Inuit will watch over the wreck sites "while occupying the land and hunting."

Research for years to come

The wrecks, especially the Terror because it is in deeper water, are well-preserved.

"The Terror is actually almost [sitting] on the bottom as it had been sailing," Bernier said. "The mast and rigging are down, but the deck is complete. The ice, because it's deeper, hasn't damaged it."

Equipment, including an emergency hyperbaric chamber for use in the event of a diving accident, are en route to the sites now by barge.

"It's very rare that you find shipwrecks so well preserved," Bernier said. "We're looking at many years of work."

The window for underwater excavations is very narrow in the region. Bernier said there are only about five or six weeks a year when research can be conducted.

Bernier said the creation of the Guardian program is part of the government's intention to include Inuit and Inuit communities in the research, management and protection of the Erebus and Terror wrecks.

With files from Sara Frizzell

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