The bright blue Expedition Flag of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society has never flown on a vessel the size of the 117-metre One Ocean Expeditions Voyager — or over an undertaking as immense as the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition to find HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the long-lost ships of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition.
As this first official day of the search opens, many months of mission planning are behind the RCGS and its government, private and non-profit sector expedition partners — a process that included amassing the most advanced technologies yet used for the effort. At the time of writing, one of the Victoria Strait Expedition’s main vessels, the Arctic Research Foundation’s Martin Bergmann, is already in the search zone. The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the One Ocean Voyager, with a contingent of civilian donors on board, are soon to enter, with the Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Kingston waiting until ice conditions allow.
The RCGS is joining Parks Canada on its sixth year of scanning the Arctic Ocean bed for the wrecks, and hopes to help make the find that will answer nearly 170 years worth of questions about the fate of Franklin’s vessels and crews.
“This is undoubtedly the greatest mystery in global exploration,” says John Geiger, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s Head of Expedition and CEO. “I don’t think anything compares to the loss of two ships and 129 men, with no substantial records save for a single note found in a cairn on King William Island. It’s a near utter absence of information. But humans, of course, like to solve mysteries — and we’re very good at it.”
Ahead of the Voyager and Kingston’s departures from Nunavut’s Resolute and Arctic Bay (respectively) and into the search theatre, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Geiger and other organization leads joined the crew of the Kingston.
“It was exciting to join the Expedition team searching for Sir John Franklin’s lost ships,” said the Prime Minister. “I am very impressed by the dedication and professionalism of the 2014 Expedition team, who are using state-of-the-art Canadian technology [such as Defense Research and Development Canada’s autonomous underwater vehicle Arctic Explorer, carried by the Voyager] to solve this bygone mystery. Sir John Franklin’s exploration and discovery of parts of Canada’s North are an important part of our history and contributed to Canada becoming the wonderful country we enjoy today.”
The Voyager, expedition headquarters for the RCGS and its partners,has sailed south down the Prince Regent Inlet, along the east coast of Somerset Island, where it will squeeze through narrow Bellot Strait and rendezvous with the icebreaker Radisson, en route to a patch of Victoria Strait northwest of King William Island. The ice is still formidable and great care is being taken, but spirits are high as the vessels draw closer to the primary search area.
For Geordie Dalglish, Chairman of the Northern Committee for expedition partner The W. Garfield Weston Foundation, the focus must be, as ever, on educating Canadians about their North. “It’s our hope that any discoveries made on this trip will enrich and add excitement to stories of the North for people in the south, and will teach us all more about this precious Arctic,” he says. “It’s our mission to spread knowledge of the North, and this is a perfect opportunity to do just that.” The W. Garfield Weston Foundation has brought aboard the Voyager a team of its most talented young Northern scientists — PhD candidates, post-doctoral researchers and new professors among them — to experience this seldom-accessed region of the Arctic and share their research with those travelling on the ship (and eventually all Canadians, through input on developing RCGS classroom educational resources).
“This part of the Victoria Strait Expedition has been almost a year in the making,” says Andrew Prossin, One Ocean’s Expedition Leader and Managing Director of the Squamish, B.C.-based company. “We were approached by the RCGS in November 2013 — right after the speech from the throne — and we jumped at the opportunity. We thought, ‘What a chance to do something good for Canada, and something good for the polar world.’ Now we’re on the way, and this great undertaking is getting a lot of encouragement from around the globe.”
“It’s about telling the story of the Arctic, its history,” says Robert Blaauw, Arctic Sea Manager for Royal Dutch Shell, nominated to accompany the searchers by Shell Canada, an expedition partner with whom the RCGS works to create education programs that improve geographic literacy nationwide. Shell Canada also brought to the North a pair of up-and-coming scientists, studying at the undergraduate and Master’s level, to take part in the Franklin search. “We are very keen that young researchers, and especially Inuit and First Nations people, are involved in this sharing of the Arctic’s story throughout Canada and the rest of the world,” says Blaauw.
“This seems to be capturing people’s imaginations now, not unlike it captured them almost 170 years ago,” says Jim Balsillie, founder of the Arctic Research Foundation and co-founder of BlackBerry. In 2012, his Foundation provided Parks Canada with the use of the Martin Bergmann, a dedicated research platform that enabled searchers to continue for weeks longer each year. “There are many parallels between our expedition and Franklin’s time, but the piqued interest in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. — both a-hundred-and-some years ago and now — are what I find most striking,” says Balsillie. “It’s a wonderful time for the RCGS to be ramping this up as a critical part of Canada’s narrative and future.”
The sea ice in Victoria Strait has persisted longer than in recent years, but may break just in time for the flotilla of Canadian searchers to converge near Erebus and Terror’s point of abandonment. If, as the theory goes, one or both of the ships sank where they were beset by ice for the last time, there is a good chance they will be located.
“In the event of a find, and because of the support of our partners and individual donors,” says Geiger, “we’re going to be able to talk to people across Canada and beyond, not only about this expedition, but the research that’s being done today in the Arctic, as well as Canada’s exercise of sovereignty in the Arctic.”