Franklin Expedition: Exploration of HMS Erebus wreck may reveal more than artifacts

Parks Canada underwater archeologists planning their next steps in the exploration of the HMS Erebus wreck see potential for revealing more than just a treasure trove of mid-19th-century artifacts.

New high-tech tools, DNA analysis could help reveal answers to questions looming over doomed Arctic mission

Inside HMS Erebus

5 years ago
Parks Canada underwater archeologists explore the wreck off the coast of Nunavut 1:11

The eerie video hints at some of the secrets that may lie hidden in the wreck of HMS Erebus.

In the images shown recently by Parks Canada, there's a seaman's chest and a galley stove lying amid the timbers of the reinforced British wooden warship that was one-half of Sir John Franklin's doomed quest to find the Northwest Passage.

Parks Canada underwater archeologists are in the midst of planning for an expected return to the mid-19th-century wreck in Nunavut this summer and hope to get a closer look inside those collapsed timbers.

Using a combination of high-tech tools, perhaps including a new and nimbler remotely operated underwater vehicle — along with archeological sleuthing and DNA analysis down the road — they see potential for revealing much more than just a treasure trove of artifacts.

"A shipwreck is more than a vessel that carries people here and there," says underwater archeologist Ryan Harris. "It's an incredible concentration of humanity under very unique circumstances."

Parks Canada underwater archeologist Charles Dagneau cuts kelp away from the surface of the upper deck of HMS Erebus. (Parks Canada)

In this case, the bare facts of those unique circumstances are known.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were trapped in ice in 1846 and abandoned two years later off King William Island, according to a note left by the crew in a cairn on the island. 

Franklin and his 128 crew members ultimately perished.

The remarkably well-preserved remains of HMS Erebus were found lying in about 11 metres of water in Wilmot and Crampton Bay in the summer of 2014.

Many questions

But how exactly HMS Erebus ended up where it did is just one of many questions archeologists and others hope to answer as exploration of the wreck continues.

"While we certainly hope to find information that will help us flesh out the chronology of events in the last stages of the doomed expedition and maybe to find the critical factors which led to the catastrophe, … the site offers much more than that," Harris says.

There's the chance to study what life might have been like on board a ship in its final months and gain a unique insight into human behaviour, especially humans confronting the most dire of circumstances.

"What I find really interesting is that… it's the life on board a ship that is doomed," Harris says.

"How are people going about their day-to-day existence when all hope was ebbing away? Is that different than what we see on other ships? Can it manifest itself in the surviving artifacts that we find?

A boot was among the artifacts found during last summer's search of the wreck of HMS Erebus. (Parks Canada)

"Was discipline maintained or did it fracture, and if so when?" Harris wonders.

"Did they still maintain some hope of escaping? Or... were they eking out their final days in utter misery? Maybe we'll find out."

As Parks Canada archeologists contemplate their next steps, they're looking for ways to explore further inside the lower spaces of the wreck.

Getting inside

That could mean using a small ROV that Harris says is "extremely agile." Parks Canada is in talks that could lead to using the ROV built by Deep Trekker, a company based in southern Ontario's Waterloo region.

"I think it's a really well-suited unit for it because of the simplicity of it and because of the ability to go inside," says Deep Trekker president Sam Macdonald.

Cameras were poked inside openings in the deck of HMS Erebus last summer to capture images of the interior of the 19th-century reinforced wooden vessel. (Parks Canada)

The high-tech tool is about the size of a basketball and weighs 8.8 kilograms — or up to 25 kilograms with its full kit.

Macdonald says the ROV has a thruster arrangement that sets it apart from other underwater vehicles.

"We rotate the body of the ROV to point up or down so it moves on a dime and moves with its full power in the vertical plane as well as the horizontal."

A camera that rotates through 270 degrees offers the ability to capture video and still images. A control unit can be used by someone on the surface or a diver in the water.

"So if you can imagine, the diver is down there surveying and doing work on the outside of the vessel, and then he can actually swim with the ROV and swim it into pretty tight spots while he's still under the water himself," Macdonald says.

Like a video game

It feels, she suggests, a bit like playing a video game.

"You're running the ROV but you've got a first person, fish-eye view of where the ROV is."

Particularly tantalizing for archeologists is the potential for discovery inside the remains of cabins, including the Great Cabin where Franklin would have stayed. Drawers and writing desks could contain documents and personal belongings.

"Every one of these cabins is, we hope, is a time capsule representing the shipboard life of one individual, perhaps more, that lived on board in the course of the expedition and ultimately met their end," Harris says.

The HMS Erebus wreck provides a good habitat for a wide diversity of marine species because it is sheltered from the ice. (Thierry Boyer/Parks Canada)

Last month, Parks Canada announced funding of $16.9 million over five years to continue exploration of the wreck, along with the hunt for HMS Terror and other initiatives in the Kitikmeot region.

For Parks Canada, careful assessment of the site is important before further exploration of the wreck is carried out. Steps also have to be taken to ensure safety for archeologists inside the wreck.

"Even though it's in remarkable condition, it is still subject to ongoing deterioration and collapse," says Harris, noting that archeologists observed last summer that one area of the upper deck moves with the wave swells.

"We'll have to ultimately go in there and reinforce it with at least temporary jackposts to allow us to work safely in that area."

DNA advances

So far, no human remains have been found, but that is a distinct possibility.

The Inuit reported coming across the corpse of a large, heavy-set individual when they had access to a Franklin expedition ship before it sank.

"It's conceivable to come across that individual in time and be able to identify him through DNA analysis potentially," Harris says.

HMS Erebus is seen in its entirety from a helicopter as it rests in 11 metres of water in Wilmot and Crampton Bay. (Parks Canada)

"The science has advanced so far in recent years. The ability to get meaningful sequences from just scant remains has really been advanced," he adds, noting that U.S. Civil War researchers have been able to get DNA from blood on lead bullets.

"I think that's really quite astonishing and hints at what we might conceivably be able to achieve underwater."

So far, 55 artifacts have been recovered on and around the wreck. More have been spotted.

Harris repeatedly emphasizes that Parks Canada is really only in the early stages of exploring and understanding what the wreck could reveal or how efforts could evolve.

"We can't even conceive of the questions that might arise as we find more evidence and the science starts to take us in different directions."


Janet Davison is a CBC senior writer and editor based in Toronto.