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Ship From Doomed Franklin Expedition Found in Arctic After 169 Years

Canadian authorities say they've detected a sunken ship from the ill-fated Arctic odyssey but aren't sure if it's the HMS Erebus or the HMS Terror.
Image: Ship
A sonar image shows one of the ships from Canada's doomed Franklin Expedition on the bottom of the Victoria Strait. Researchers are not yet sure whether it's the HMS Terror or the HMS Erebus.Parks Canada Archaeology

A ship that figures in one of the greatest mysteries in Arctic exploration — the 1840s disappearance of the Franklin Expedition — has been found, Canadian authorities said Tuesday.

It’s not known yet whether the ship found in Canada’s Arctic is the HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement, but the discovery was confirmed Sunday using a remote underwater vehicle.

“This is truly a historic moment for Canada,” Harper said. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty."

Harper’s statement did not say exactly where the wreck was found, but this year's search effort was focused on Victoria Strait (see map of the search area from Canadian Geographic).

Researchers believe the ships were trapped in the ice near King William Island and abandoned.

The expedition left England in 1845 with a crew of 134 led by Sir John Franklin, who hoped to find a Northwest Passage through the Arctic. Searches for the lost ships began in 1848, and eventually the bodies of crewmen were found on Beechey and King William islands. Notes left on King William indicated that the ships were trapped in 1846 — and after many deaths, including Franklin’s, the survivors attempted to walk to the mainland beginning in the spring of 1848. None made it to safety.

Pneumonia and starvation are believed to have killed many of them, and some of the remains were found to contain high amounts of lead, which scientists believe came from the solder in cans of food.

The 2014 search for the ships used remotely controlled unmanned submarines and an array of sonar technology, including synthetic aperture, multibeam and side scan, according to the Canadian Geographic website.

Ryan Harris, an underwater archaeologist and a leader of the Parks Canada search, said some deck structures appear to be intact and the ship's contents also might be in good condition, The Associated Press reported. (See video from Parks Canada.)

Stephen Harper Ryan Harris
Parks Canada's Ryan Harris, left, briefs Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on efforts to find the Franklin Expedition aboard the HMCS Kingston west of Pond Inlet on Eclipse Sound in Nunavut, Canada on Aug. 24.Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press via AP