Discovery of Franklin expedition ships pits science against tourism: Bob McDonald

Measures need to be taken to ensure the wrecks of the Franklin expedition, the most recent of which - the HMS Terror - was found this past week, are protected from tourists and looters, writes Bob Macdonald.

Tour companies will be eager to visit site of wrecks, which could threaten preservation of the sites

A still from a video produced by the Arctic Research Foundation appears to show the wheel of the HMS Terror. The wreck long-lost ship is believed to have been found in a Nunavut bay on Sept. 3. (Arctic Research Foundation)

The discovery of Sir John Franklin's ship HMS Terror this week, along with HMS Erebus two years ago, provide valuable tools to unlocking the mystery of the doomed 1845 expedition. Now that their locations are known, the wrecks will likely become popular destinations for the growing Arctic tourism industry, which will be a challenge for their preservation.

Thanks to the cold, clear Arctic waters, both ships have been preserved in remarkable condition, especially the Terror. Its wooden hull is so intact, it looks like it could be refloated. The three masts are still standing, and the windows are not broken. In fact, the preservation is so good, archaeologists expect to find artifacts inside as detailed as written documents still lying in drawers. The ships are incredible time capsules.

The Crystal Serenity is the first large luxury cruise ship to sail from Alaska to Greenland through the Northwest Passage, a sign of the expanding climate change-driven Arctic tourism industry. (Courtesy Crystal Cruises)

In a strange twist of irony, the same week that Terror was found, the first full-sized cruise ship, Crystal Serenity, carrying 1,600 tourists on board, sailed through the Northwest Passage. It's a voyage that Franklin and his crew struggled for three years to accomplish, an unfinished journey that ultimately cost them their lives.

Besides demonstrating how much the Arctic has warmed in the last 150 years because of climate change, the cruise ship symbolizes how the tourist industry is capitalizing on the newly opened waters in the North to bring more and more people to one of the last true wilderness areas left on the planet.

Wrecks attract looters, souvenir hunters

Tour companies will certainly put pressure on the government of Nunavut to allow them to visit the Franklin wrecks, which are in shallow enough water that divers and small submarines will be able to explore the sights directly.

This raises an issue that has troubled archaeologists in other sites around the world. Once the location of a site is known, looters, souvenir hunters and careless tourists have damaged and even destroyed historical treasures. Measures must be taken to ensure this doesn't happen with the wrecks of the Franklin expedition.

Underwater video shows remains of HMS Terror

7 years ago
Duration 0:34
Ship was lost in 1845 in a Nunavut bay

The first task on a newly discovered site is to scientifically document every artifact in its original position. It is a painstaking process that involves photographs, videos, 3D laser scans, maps and an encyclopedia worth of information on every single item that is found. The scientists have the same attitude as crime scene investigators who say, "Don't touch anything until we get there."

When the Titanic, shown resting 4 km below the surface of the North Atlantic off the coast of St. John's, N.L. , was found in 1985, Robert Ballard, one of the leaders of the expedition, felt the ship should be left alone as a grave site . (Discovery Channel/RMS Titanic Inc./Associated Press)

In 1985, when the wreck of the Titanic was found, Dr. Robert Ballard, one of the leaders of the expedition, felt the ship should be left alone as a grave site to respect the more than 1,500 people who lost their lives in the disaster. But once the location of the sunken ship was known, other expeditions returned to bring up hundreds of artifacts that were exhibited around the world, and tour companies offered dives to the wreck in deep water submersibles. Since then, the ship has shown visible deterioration, in part, because of these salvage and tourist trips.

Will Erebus and Terror suffer the same fate, or can they be preserved as living museums?

Preservation vs. education

Of course, the counter argument is that recovering artifacts from shipwrecks and placing them in museums allows millions of people to see history with their own eyes and keep the story alive.

When Howard Carter uncovered the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1923 and saw "wonderful things" inside, it was the largest and most valuable treasure of ancient Egyptian artifacts ever found. But unlike the fictional character Indiana Jones, who crashes into tombs like a bulldozer, knocking over precious objects just to get away from snakes, it took Carter's team two and a half months to document all the objects in the first chamber before they even got to the actual sarcophagus in the burial room. 

The wreck of the HMS Erebus, above, was found in 2014 west of O'Reilly Island in Nunavut. (Parks Canada)

Now, those invaluable artifacts fill an entire section of the Egyptian museum in Cairo, and many of them, especially the famous golden mask, have circled the globe in special exhibitions.

Somewhere there has to be a balance between removing articles from historic sites for public education while leaving the sites themselves intact. Efforts must be made to ensure nothing ends up in the hands of looters and private collectors who trade them on the black market.

The harsh Arctic environment has preserved the Franklin ships from more than a century and a half. But just because that environment is changing, it doesn't mean our respect for those frozen relics and their tragic story should change along with it and be exposed to the ravages of human hands.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.