It’s a cold and blustery April evening in Toronto, but behind the doors of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club it’s all fireplace-warm and alive with the soft rustle of tailored suits and tinkling champagne glasses. The annual heritage dinner is a gala affair, replete with a four-course dinner and all the nautical tradition and ceremony expected of a 165-year-old sailing club. Tonight, though, there’s an added element of excitement in the air, because the evening’s guest speaker is Ryan Harris. For the last five years, Harris has directed the search for the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition, the twin Grails of Canadian Arctic exploration.

Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic

Jointly named a national historic site in 1992, the wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror have been searched for, on and off, for 160 years, ever since they became trapped in the unforgiving ice of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago near King William Island in 1848. What happened to the ships, where they ended up and how the officers and crew spent their final agonizing days are enduring mysteries.

As for the mystery of how a 35-year-old underwater archeologist was chosen to lead Parks Canada’s search for the country’s most important marine artifacts, that becomes clearer the moment Harris steps to the microphone.

The Franklin Expedition, he tells his rapt audience, was about more than charting a Northwest Passage: it was to be a further, perhaps final, proof that 19th-century humans, equipped with the latest in scientific knowledge and human ingenuity, could defy and transcend nature even at her fiercest. When the Arctic ice put the lie to these notions, crushing both man and machine with indifferent ease, it came as a deep psychological blow to Victorian sensibilities. “Franklin set out from England amid great fanfare, with a hand-picked crew and these two sublimely equipped ships … and yet it all unravelled horrifically; it all came undone and descended into cannibalism and ultimate depravity,” says Harris. “In this sense, it’s a classic Victorian Gothic horror story, a story of ghost ships. And really, the interest in the Franklin Expedition has never abated since.”

Tall, wiry and athletic, Harris looks younger than his now 41 years, and radiates energy and authority. For the next 40 minutes, he talks steadily and without notes, demonstrating his encyclopedic knowledge of all things Franklin, and outlining his five-year effort to find the expedition’s lost ships. Harris departs the stage to a standing ovation.

For Canadians interested in marine archeology, there’s really only one place to work: Parks Canada’s elite Underwater Archaeology Service. Calgary-born Harris set his sights on joining the eight-member team as far back as the mid-1990s, while doing his master’s degree in maritime history and nautical archeology at East Carolina University, in Greenville, North Carolina. For someone with a passion for history and diving, it was a logical career choice, but it wouldn’t come easily. As the team’s chief, Marc-André Bernier, explains, the unique demands on Parks Canada divers — the ability to work in challenging conditions, diving in freezing waters with limited visibility and high currents — are not for everyone. Moreover, since divers rely on one another for their safety and live together in cramped research vessels often for weeks at a time, potential recruits are vetted extremely carefully. “We’re a small team, and there’s not a lot of turnover,” says Bernier. “When we take on new staff, the expectation is that they will be with us for life.”

Any misgivings Bernier may have had back in 1998 upon welcoming an untested 25-year-old intern into the team’s close ranks were promptly dispelled, however, as Harris quickly won the team over. “From the beginning, he was very good,” recalls Bernier. “He has a good research mind, an excellent practical mind and is an outstanding diver. He’s very well versed in the construction of historic sailing ships, he’s an expert in remote sensing technology and he brings skills from virtually every area of the field. As an underwater archeologist, he’s as close as you get to the complete package.”

Over the next decade, Harris would participate in dozens of marine archeological searches, including exploring the War of 1812 shipwrecks Hamilton and Scourge in Lake Ontario, discovering 16th-century Basque whaling vessels in Red Bay, Labrador, and aiding the recovery mission of the remains of an American aircraft and pilot that had crashed and sunk in the St. Lawrence River during the Second World War.

Meanwhile, in the mid-2000s, political interest in mapping the Canadian Arctic Archipelago began to heat up, as climate change opened new possibilities for Arctic navigation and as new concerns arose about cementing Canadian claims to the region. In this context, the possibility of once again searching for Franklin’s lost ships was broached, with the federal government explicitly linking their discovery to broader issues of Arctic sovereignty. In 2007, with the blessing of the cabinet, Harris leveraged this confluence of interests to help negotiate a multi-year partnership between Parks Canada and the Canadian Hydrographic Service, in which the two organizations would agree to undertake hydrographic and archeological surveys in regions of mutual interest in the Arctic. Thanks in part to his expertise with remote sensing technology, Harris was tapped to lead the archeological operations on the first expedition in 2008, and has directed all subsequent Franklin searches.

Part of that responsibility includes deciding where to search, based on historical evidence and practical limitations related to seasonal movements of ice, the availability of icebreakers and research vessels and the priorities of the Canadian Hydrographic Service. Since 2008, the Underwater Archaeology Service has surveyed hundreds of square kilometres of Arctic seabed in primary search areas near O’Reilly Island and west of Erebus Bay, so far without success.

In 2010, however, acting on a hunch, Harris made a stunning discovery when he located the HMS Investigator, the British naval ship sent in 1850 to look for the Erebus and Terror. The Investigator was lost in 1853 when it became icebound in the frigid water surrounding Banks Island, far to the west in the Northwest Territories. Despite the possibility the Investigator could have been moved or pulverized by a century-and-a-half of shifting sea ice, Harris suspected the ship might still lie where it was originally trapped and abandoned by its crew 163 years ago: under the ice of Mercy Bay near Banks Island, 850 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

After spending months organizing an expedition to look for the Investigator, however, Harris ran into a problem: by late July, the Mercy Bay ice pack still stubbornly refused to break up. Unless the bay cleared — and soon — the expedition would have to be scrapped.

With the search window down to less than a week, word finally came that the ice pack had broken. Harris and his Underwater Archaeology Service colleagues raced to the site only to discover that while the pack had broken, the bay was still clogged with massive chunks of ice. It was a crushing blow. “What could we do? We set up camp and settled in to watch the ice,” says Harris, “just as the crew of the Investigator undoubtedly did in 1853.”

To make matters worse, an Arctic gale had struck their tent camp, blowing sand into their remote sensing equipment; the all-important sonar module that was to scan the ocean floor for signs of the wreck was no longer working. Harris took the equipment apart and cleaned it, and when a patch of open water appeared, he and a couple of colleagues ventured out in their six-metre Zodiac to test the sonar.

“Within three minutes, anomalies began to show up on the sea floor, which were inconclusive but certainly caught my attention,” recalls Harris. “Within two hours, as more ice cleared, we started getting really good images of the wreck site. It all happened so quickly, we were just in disbelief.”

The discovery of the Investigator made international headlines and further burnished Harris’s reputation as a superb expedition leader and unflappable field operative.

In 2011, he returned to dive the wreck, becoming the first person to touch it in nearly 160 years. “When you catch a glimpse of this stately ship looming out of the dark, it’s surreal,” he says. “It was such an unlikely place to be diving, and at such an unlikely time, in the middle of the night when the sun’s still shining. There are not too many days in our lives like that.”

That was also the day he received his nickname One More Dive Harris, after trying to cajole his exhausted teammates into getting back in the water for another go at the Investigator, even at 2 a.m. “He gave this impassioned speech about how we only had to do one more dive to complete a section of work, and we all just said, ‘No, we’re going to bed,’ ” recalls colleague Jonathan Moore.

As for Harris, he’s under no illusions: the Investigator, as magnificent as it is, remains a secondary prize. Until the Erebus and Terror are discovered, the last chapter of the Franklin story remains unwritten. And Harris would dearly love to have a hand in writing that chapter.

“The discovery of the Investigator reached an estimated 1.9 billion people globally, so I’m aware of the crushing weight of the public and media interest in the Franklin saga,” he says. “To discover one of his ships would be career altering.”

Ryan Harris leads the search for the Franklin Expedition ships Terror and Erebus. (Photo: Jonathan Moore/Parks Canada)

Underwater archeologist Ryan Harris circles the Investigator, a British ship lost during its search for the Franklin vessels. (Photo: Brett Seymour/Parks Canada/U.S. National Parks Service)

At Fathom Five National Marine Park, just off the coast of Ontario's Bruce Peninsula, a diver investigates the Sweepstakes, which has sat under the clear, shallow water since 1885.

A diver investigates the Sweepstakes, a two-masted schooner that sank in 1885 after striking a rock off Cove Island near the Bruce Peninsula.

During the hunt for the HMS Investigator in Mercy Bay, underwater archaeologist Ryan Harris instructs team members below the surface from the Zodiac.

Team members raise an artifact from the HMS Investigator to the inflatable boat in Mercy Bay near Banks Island.

Parks Canada's Underwater Archeologists travelled aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker, Sir Wilfred Laurier, to begin the search for Franklin's lost ships.