Summer dives set for Franklin ship as future ownership in limbo

Parks Canada marine archeologists will dive this summer on HMS Terror, the once-elusive Franklin ship discovered in the Arctic last September, even as troubling ownership and security issues remained unresolved.

Government of Nunavut controls wreck site of HMS Terror, but ownership claim not accepted yet

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

Parks Canada marine archeologists will dive this summer on HMS Terror, the once-elusive Franklin ship discovered in the Arctic last September, even as troubling ownership and security issues remained unresolved.

A 14-person team based on the newly refitted vessel R/V David Thompson will take pictures and video of the sunken wreck in Terror Bay, off King William Island, and even send remote cameras into the murky interior of the ship.

The divers may also retrieve artifacts "if deemed necessary because they are threatened," says an official plan for the two-to-four weeks of exploration, beginning sometime after Aug. 1.

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

The underwater inspection of HMS Terror, and its sunken sister ship HMS Erebus discovered in 2014, is being arranged at the same time as ownership, control and even protection of the iconic 19th-century ships are stuck in limbo.

Under a 1997 memorandum of understanding, Canada acknowledged Britain owns the wrecks, given that the Royal Navy mounted the 1845 expedition to find a northwest passage under Sir John Franklin. All crewmembers died after the two ships were beset by ice, though their exact fate has remained a mystery.

Both countries also agreed Britain would transfer ownership to Canada once the wrecks were found, but after more than a year of formal negotiations in Portsmouth, England, there's still no transfer deal.

We would consult and seek permission from the Government of Nunavut.- Parks Canada spokeswoman

Meanwhile, most of the artifacts Parks Canada retrieved from HMS Erebus and restored, at a cost to taxpayers of millions of dollars, have been sent to Greenwich, England, for their first major exhibition, opening July 14 until Jan. 7, 2018. Canadians will have to wait until March next year to see them here.

Inuit groups, meanwhile, also claim ownership of the wrecks and their artifacts, as does the Government of Nunavut in Iqaluit. Parks Canada has agreed to explore joint ownership with the Inuit Heritage Trust, once Britain transfers ownership.

The agency has not accepted Iqaluit's claim, though it's reviewing it. This summer's dives on the wreck of HMS Terror, nevertheless, have to be approved by the Government of Nunavut through an archeological permit.

So even though Parks Canada has not recognized Nunavut claims of ownership, the agency still needs Iqaluit's permission to retrieve them from the seabed or wreck.

"In the event of the discovery of an artifact at risk, we would consult and seek permission from the Government of Nunavut prior to the artifact retrieval," said Parks Canada spokeswoman Audrey Champagne.

Fines up to $100K

Parks Canada divers will also explore the officers' cabin and stern of HMS Erebus, further south, this summer but do not need Nunavut's permission do to so. That's because in April 2015, seven months after the ship's discovery, the federal cabinet declared an exclusion zone measuring 10 square kilometres around the wreck to protect it from souvenir hunters, and gave Parks Canada sole control of the site. Trespassing fines can range up to $100,000.

Nine months after the unexpected discovery of HMS Terror, however, the cabinet has still not declared an exclusion zone for that site, for reasons that remain unclear. And that is raising concerns about rogue divers pillaging the wreck.

Until an exclusion zone for HMS Terror is declared under the Canada National Parks Act, Parks Canada has no enforcement authority to arrest and detain souvenir-hunters, say internal documents.

The agency is planning to create an Inuit-led "Guardian" program in 2018 to help monitor and protect the ships, but until then must rely on Transport Canada, RCMP, coast guard and others to watch the remote HMS Terror site and respond in emergencies, say the documents.


Champagne says Parks Canada is also taking steps to create an exclusion zone for HMS Terror, but did not say when or why it is taking so long.

Ironically, the Arctic Research Foundation (ARF) ship that discovered HMS Terror in 2016, in aptly named Terror Bay, was itself a renegade of sorts. (The non-profit foundation was founded in 2012 by BlackBerry magnate Jim Balsillie.)

Research vessel Martin Bergmann, with the crew who discovered the wreck of the HMS Terror in September 2016. (Courtesy: Danial McIsaac)

The R/V Martin Bergmann, working in partnership with Parks Canada, did not have a permit from the Government of Nunavut to explore Terror Bay. Parks Canada declined to apply for one for the 2016 search season because of a "lack of archaeological evidence or traditional Inuit knowledge that pointed to the area," says an internal agency document from December 2016.

"The ARF therefore did not have a permit to search in the area where the wreck was found on September 3, 2016, and did not inform Parks Canada about the find. Parks Canada learned of the discovery through news sources."

The R/V Martin Bergmann had detoured through Terror Bay after an Inuit crewmember remembered seeing what looked like the mast of a ship sticking up through the ice several years earlier.

Follow @DeanBeeby on Twitter


Dean Beeby

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Bureau

Dean Beeby is a CBC journalist, author and specialist in freedom-of-information laws. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanBeeby


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