Presentation of January 2013
Preserving and Promoting local history for the former Rideau Township
Log Fence

November Presentation:
A Look at Three Arctic Shipwrecks: HMS Investigator,
the Breadalbane and the HMS Erebus

 Jonathan Moore, Parks Canada
Article and photos by Lucy Martin  

The November meeting was noteworthy for its size and special significance. Of course, every speaker generously shares time and expertise. But this month's guest, Johnathan Moore, brought us first-hand accounts of recent accomplishments that made news reports around the world. By proximity, those in the audience could feel close to history in the making.

Moore grew up in Kingston, earning an undergraduate degree in classics at Queen's University and a master's degree in Marine Studies at St. Andrews University, Scotland. As an underwater archeologist with Parks Canada since 1994,]  

Moore has also contributed to studies detailing the Rideau Canal, a topic he's worked on and spoken about with many regional historical societies. Most recently, Moore was part of the team that found HMS Erebus, flagship of the long-sought Franklin Expedition. Moore had agreed to come speak with our society before that momentous event. It's impressive that he kept the commitment, even after his schedule become far more demanding.

Indeed, the usual date for our meeting had to be shifted because Parks Canada's Victoria Strait underwater archeology team (which included Moore) was busy that Wednesday. His Excellency the Right Honorable David Johnston presented that group the Royal Canadian Geographic Society's Lawrence J. Burpee Medal for finding the Erebus and helping to create a greater awareness of Canada's Arctic. At the same event, the Sir Christopher Ondaatje Medal for Exploration was awarded to long-time RTHS member George Hobson for his logistical support in scientific and exploratory work in the Arctic. Congratulations to all on that well-deserved recognition.

Thanks to extra advance publicity for the Thursday talk, approximately 225 people thronged to North Gower's Alfred Taylor Recreation Centre to experience Moore's presentation. (RTHS extends thanks to Councillor Scott Moffatt for his kind assistance with this event.)

Attendees braved a cold night, arriving from near and far. Some were there to satisfy simple curiosity. Others were scuba divers, or people with Arctic experience who could relate to Moore's adventures. Still others included colleagues who had worked with Moore on previous projects.

   Ship trapped in arctic ice.

Depiction of a ship trapped in Arctic Ice  

In his opening remarks, Moore said he was just one of eight on the current Parks Canada underwater archeology team, which works from coast to coast to coast across Canada and is now marking its 50th anniversary. Moore acknowledged the presence of the founding leader of that team in the audience, Walter Zacharchuk.

  The northern search area

The Northern search area and some of the ships and equipment used in the search.  There was  significant support for the project.  

Moore's talk was titled: “A Look at Three Arctic Shipwrecks: HMS Investigator, the Breadalbane and the HMS Erebus.” (Listed in order of Moore's archeological work on those wrecks.)

In brief, the Investigator was a merchant ship. It was purchased in 1848 and sent to search for the lost Franklin Expedition twice, in 1848 and 1850. After what Moore called a long and eventful voyage including several over-winterings, it was abandoned in 1853 in Mercy Bay near Banks Island, after getting trapped in ice. (The vast majority of that crew was rescued by other vessels.) The wreck was discovered in 2010. That discovery was made easier because good information about the ship's likely location was already known. That's not to say such expeditions are easy. They require meticulous planning, careful marshaling of considerable food, shelter, gear, safety and medical equipment – enough to be (basically) self-sufficient in the land of l-o-n-g travel distances and hungry polar bears. Everything must be pre-packed and brought by plane and then moved to base camp by inflatable craft. On the arrival for the 2010 project, wind had filled the bay with ice, which had to dissipate before the search could take place.  

Two of the search vessels, a hydrographic launch and ship

The icebreaker Sir Wilfred Laurier and hydrographic launches were used in the 2014 search.  

The wreck itself was found in remarkably short order, only minutes after setting out the sonar scanner on a trail run. Having come expecting a two-week surface search, the team did not have dive equipment on hand, only a remotely-operated vehicle. That was deployed to take more images. Moore stated that - despite some ice damage - “by and large, the shipwreck was still intact.”

They returned in 2011 with the intent of doing a more complete wreck survey and getting images from inside the hull. That, of course, requires even more gear and more people than the previous 2010 encampment. The water temperature ranged between +3 C and -3 C.  “It was cold.” Moore said. Even with cold water suits divers could only last about an hour before their hands became uselessly numb.

This expedition took conventional and high-tech images and recorded the entire wreck, surveying it from bow to stern, observing “remarkable” preservation. Moore commented that the debris field surrounding the hull is quite large, but “really, everything that was on this ship at one time is still there, it's just having been been moved or displaced, or damaged to a certain extent.” He called it “a real exciting discovery, beautifully intact.”  

A dozen artifacts were brought to the surface (including a musket). Some tantalizing images from below decks were taken too. A more thorough exploration of the contents below-decks will have to await the next such visit. Interestingly, one item recovered was rope “coded” with wool yarn (twisted inside when it was made) which helped prove ownership to combat pilferage.

The Breadalbane was a three-masted barque, built in 1843 and was used by the British Navy in 1853 to re-supply an earlier expedition sent to seek the Franklin Expedition. That same year the ship sank in less than 30 minutes after being damaged by ice near Beechey Island.

Its wreck was found - at a depth of a little over 100 meters - in 1980, after a three-year hunt. (Moore added that George Hobson was “very much involved” in those efforts, as well as efforts to find the Erebus and the Terror.) The Breadalbane has been described as the world's northernmost known shipwreck and one of the best-preserved wooden ships yet found.

100 meters is deep; too deep for conventional diving equipment of that time. It was just barely possible to dive there using very advanced equipment. However, the danger and difficulty was such that the bulk of the work had to be done with a remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

Moore was not involved in the work done in the early '80s, but he was at that wreck site as part of a training exercise in 2014. He reports it was so cold he was amazed the equipment worked at all, especially the batteries. Marking the site of the wreck, they cut a hole through 6 feet of ice, by which all dive equipment was lowered and retrieved.

Some changes in the site were observed. In 1983 all three masts were still standing. But across the  intervening years they have all since collapsed. It was possible to use ROVs to go into the hold, which Moore compared to threading a needle 300 feet away, while peeking through an ice hole! Because it would be only too easy to get stuck (and lose the ROV) Moore said that bit of driving was “quite nerve-wracking”. As they discovered, most of the ships provisions had been removed.

Moore said that work made the 2014 season very successful, even before the discovery of the Erebus.

HMS Erebus was built in 1826 and was the flagship of the Franklin Expedition, which left England in 1845. It was abandoned in Victoria Strait in April of 1848. The combined crew of 129 aboard  HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were all lost in their quest for the Northwest Passage. Their failure to return launched multiple search and rescue expeditions which gradually gave way to another century and a half of non-rescue efforts to understand the particulars of the loss.

Parks Canada and the Royal Canadian Geographic Society, along with other Canadian and private agencies, have conducted collaborative summer expeditions to hunt for the Erebus and the Terror since 2008. The wreck of what proved to be the Erebus was found in September of this year. It was formally identified by October, with a demonstrable match of the hull with the ship's blueprints and the recovery of the ship's bell, which was marked 1845, the year the expedition left England.  

As a side note, Sir John Franklin is also linked to the Ottawa region. After two major expeditions in Canada (Coppermine River 1819-22; Mackenzie River 1825-27)  he laid the cornerstone for the Rideau Canal in Bytown. Moore recounted a summary of the Franklin Expedition and the initial searches to find the crew and ships, which I will skip over in the interest of brevity.

Noteworthy aspects of the 2014 Victoria Strait search included the broad alliance of agencies and organizations that pooled resources in that effort – including important assistance from the Government of Nunavut - the pleasure of good teamwork and the way oral testimony from Inuit accounts across generations proved valid and useful.

Lest readers not know, Franklin died early over the course of the expedition, in 1847, which we know by way of the Victory Point cairn note.

It is believed the last of the crew met their end after spending two years stuck in ice and then attempting to walk out by land. It is possible (as suggested by some oral testimony) that a few may have doubled back and attempted to re-sail the ships. It's a complicated mystery that may never be completely understood. But it is clear that cold, disease, scurvy, starvation - and yes, cannibalism - were all part of this unfortunate saga.

The modern search for the two ships has been based on detective work combining everything that was thought to be known, and guess work about where melting, moving sea ice would have left the ships to sink. Since 2008, search expeditions have mapped out two most-likely areas to search, and search them sweep by sweep with sonar devices, in the manner of “mowing the lawn”, to cover it all. Painstaking, meticulous work, day after day, which was unsuccessful, until 2014.

In Moore's words, “fortunately, ice conditions were terrible this year”, which forced efforts to focus in the southern target region. An exciting clue that this may be the right place came when two large artifacts that could be assumed to come from either the Erebus or Terror were found in September, on land adjacent to the search area. Surely, they were getting closer!  

Based on those discoveries on land, the search was moved closer to shore. The Erebus was found, Sunday, September 7th, in about 11 meters of water, to cries of “That's it, that's it!” Project lead Ryan Harris and Moore were first to lay eyes on the wreck by way of the sonar image, and first to dive there. Various verification protocols followed, which allowed the discovery to be announced by an enormously pleased Prime Minister Stephen Harper on September 9th.  As mentioned, the wreck could be identified as the Erebus by October. The exact location of the Erebus is being kept quiet to thwart prospective looting.

Although the masts are gone and there is some damage, on the whole the wreck is in good condition. There's only been time for basic reconnaissance so far. The excitement of that discovery may only be exceeded by the anticipation of what else will be revealed as the wreck is further explored. Only a few items have been recovered, including the ship's bell. Most participants believe there is much, much more ahead in what can be learned from the find.

The vagaries of weather - or plain old luck – can be essential factors in field expeditions. That aside, the accomplishments of this summer's expeditions reflect well on the many Canadians who are committed to exploring, understanding and preserving our world. Most of us left the talk warmly appreciative of an exciting discovery that was very well done indeed.

Capping off an already-grand evening, no less than twelve attendees took out new RTHS memberships for the coming year.

Thanks again to Jonathan Moore of Parks Canada for so graciously bringing his team's historic adventure to North Gower. And thanks to all who made the special evening such a satisfying experience.

Discussions with the speaker, post talk.

It didn't take long for the discussions and questions to begin after the talk.  They continued for at least a good half hour.