• Recovered bell from HMS Erebus. (Photo: © Parks Canada / Thierry Boyer)

Parks Canada and National Defense officials today revealed some of the details surrounding their plans for a spring dive on HMS Erebus, one of Sir John Franklin’s long-lost ships that was discovered in September.

The two organizations will combine forces for 11 days of diving and underwater archaeology work in April during Operation NUNALIVUT 2015, a sovereignty exercise that has been conducted by Canada’s military in the North since 2007.

A total of 40 people will work at the wreck site (the precise location of which remains undisclosed), atop ice that Lt.-Cmdr. Stephan Julien of the Royal Canadian Navy said would be about two metres thick. Julien, who will command a team of divers from Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service and the Royal Canadian Navy, said that the ice provides divers with a stable platform from which to work. “We’re able to bring specialized equipment that normally underwater we wouldn’t be able [to], or it would be more difficult to bring because we would need a larger vessel to do so. On the ice, we can bring that specialized equipment, establish a camp directly over the site itself and extend our diving hours.”

During last year’s descents to Erebus, divers were only able to stay underwater for an hour before their air ran out. In April, divers will have air supplied to them from the surface, via an umbilical.

The two groups of divers have been working and training together in Halifax and Quebec City in preparation for the operation in April. Marc-André Bernier, who heads Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Service, said that the navy divers have received underwater archeology training. “We gave an introduction to underwater archaeology … to our colleague divers to prepare them to support us underwater.”

Bernier said the plan announced today was set in motion as soon as Erebus was discovered last year. “For the last seven months we’ve been preparing for what is coming up this April, looking at different scenarios, different ways of going back to the ship.” He also said that Parks Canada and its partners would continue to search for Franklin’s second ship, HMS Terror.

Bernier stressed that retrieving artifacts was not the main goal of the forthcoming dives on Erebus. “The primary focus is to … complete … a primary understanding of the site,” he said. However, we are coming prepared in case we have to intervene, and we want to … start some of the next steps. We will have a Parks Canada conservator on site, a professional trained with waterlogged and underwater finds who will be there in case some of the artifacts are recovered.

“This is like investigating a crime scene of the past … basically we’re detectives of the past and we have to come and really set the stage for recording and understanding everything. And then after that, the artifacts are going to give us clues and answers to the story.”