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Royal Canadian Geographical Society CEO John Geiger gives a sneak peek of this year’s Franklin search

Why this summer’s search for the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition will be the biggest and most advanced ever

  • Jul 17, 2014
  • 1,638 words
  • 7 minutes
Team photo from the 2012 search for the lost Franklin ships. Expand Image

This summer, the largest and most technologically advanced search for the Franklin ships will scour the seabed of the Victoria Strait as a Royal Canadian Geographical Society flag expedition.

The RCGS flag has flown over expeditions to some of the most difficult-to-reach places on Earth, from Canada’s highest peaks to beneath its seas. But this summer’s search for the Franklin expedition’s lost ships will be the biggest RCGS flag expedition to date. John Geiger, CEO of the RCGS, sat down with Canadian Geographic to discuss the significance of this summer’s search.

CG: Dozens of missions have set out in search of the Franklin expedition since the late 1840s, and the ships have never been found. What makes this year’s search for the lost ships different from the dozens that came before it?

JG: This year, there are more partners, and the search will have greater capability as a result of the collaboration. In the past, it’s been largely a project of the Government of Canada with one additional partner – the Arctic Research Foundation. But now, you’re going to see more ships participating in the search, using better technology. The RCGS has assembled a formidable group of private and non-profit partners to assist, and the more that you throw at this problem, the greater your probability of success.

CG: How did the decision to expand the search to involve private, and non-profit organizations like the RCGS, come about?

JG: I think a lot of credit has to go to the Harper government. They have underscored the importance of the Arctic to Canada’s future, they have taken the region seriously, and they have also placed an emphasis on our heritage. We didn’t come into possession of the Arctic Archipelago by accident, it was a result of exploration in the 19th century, and so that flows right through to questions of Canadian sovereignty today. In its Throne speech last fall, the government signalled the inclusion of new partners, and I am grateful that Minister Aglukkaq and her Parks Canada team have been so encouraging and welcoming to RCGS and its partners. I am grateful the government understood the potential for our contribution to stimulate public interest in Canada’s North, and for its recognition of the importance of this story to understanding who we are as Canadians and for making the Arctic a priority. It’s a part of our country that was overlooked for too long.

CG: What do Canadian Geographic and the RCGS bring to this year’s search?

JG: The RCGS has assembled a partnership of leading foundations and private businesses with an acute interest in the North. The W. Garfield Weston Foundation is renowned for its support of northern research, and it was their early enthusiasm that made this project possible. One Ocean Expeditions is a leader in adventure travel and has been involved in the Arctic for years. They’re among the most skilled polar voyagers on the planet. And Shell Canada has been a great supporter of geographic education and literacy. They’ve been a wonderful supporter of the RCGS; they understand the value and importance of education and geographical literacy. For its part, the Arctic Research Foundation has been contributing to the search for a few years now and, beyond their support for our educational outreach, they will be again be contributing their own research ship, the Martin Bergmann, to the effort.

CG: It would be easy to write off previous searches as unsuccessful, but we’ve learned much about what happened to the Franklin expedition from them.

JG: The expedition’s disappearance is a historical mystery, and its fate is very much a puzzle we put together piece by piece. Beginning with the first wave of searches in the 19th century, bits and pieces of information have helped us create a picture of what happened.

A note left behind by Lieutenant Graham Gore in a stone cairn on King William Island was critical to learning what we know about the expedition. It is because of that note that we know the ships were last seen in the Victoria Strait, the site of this year’s search.

Cut marks on skeletal remains gave us physical evidence to support historic Inuit testimony that the expedition explorers eventually resorted to cannibalism. Recent years have seen advanced technologies and forensics add to what we know. University of Alberta anthropology professor Owen Beattie’s work on the crew’s remains has helped us understand their health and given us insight into what happened. There’s clear evidence of scurvy, cannibalism and lead poisoning.

It’s so unusual in terms of the massive loss of life. One hundred twenty nine men perished, but the greatest questions now surround the utter absence of the vessels. It’s almost as if they disappeared into thin air. Only the smallest bits of Erebus and Terror are represented in the archaeological record. But over the last few years Parks Canada, with help from the Arctic Research Foundation, and the Canadian Coast Guard, have been able to fill in some pieces of that puzzle, and to narrow the search.

CG: If the ships are found, what could that teach us about the expedition?

JG: A substantial number of the crew is missing. We don’t know where their bodies ended up. If we do find the Erebus and Terror, it could turn out that the ships were mass graves. Franklin himself is still missing, and so are his logs. The ships could help tell the story of the expedition’s last days.

There were survivors from Titanic, so we know generally the story of what happened to that ship. The questions were answered at the time, but here, there were no survivors, so there are many questions that have been left unanswered. It’s the greatest exploration-related mystery on the planet, and Erebus and Terror are the most important undiscovered shipwrecks in the world.

CG: Is there reason to believe that this will be the year that the ships are finally found?

JG: Each year that we search, we come a little bit closer to a find. A large part of the waters related to the loss have already been searched. Essentially, we now know where the ships aren’t, assuming that all technology worked as it should have on previous searches.

I think we’re getting closer. This summer, the search will focus on the Victoria Strait, where the ships were last seen. We’re looking where you’d think there’d be a reasonable probability of at least one of of the ships being found. If you lose your wallet, the first place you go back to is the place where you lost it, but thick ice cover in the Victoria Strait provides only a brief window when searches can occur.

This year, there are more ships involved, and cutting edge technology. The Royal Canadian Navy is involved.  DRDC is bringing the Arctic Explorer, an autonomous underwater vehicle at the leading edge of technology. Parks Canada’s underwater archaeology branch, which is coordinating the search and has a great deal of expertise, has four large ships and some smaller platforms to work off of this summer. Everything suggests that we’re getting closer, but the Arctic doesn’t give up its mysteries easily. The Franklin story has been a difficult problem.

CG: What do Canadians stand to gain if the ships are found?

JG: There will be a huge explosion of interest in that golden era of exploration. Canada’s claim to sovereignty over the Arctic is in large part derived from explorers like Sir John Franklin who were responsible for charting much of Canada’s Arctic. A find will connect Canadians with a vital part of their history, and understand why the Arctic Archipelago is Canadian. The involvement of the Inuit and oral testimony in the Franklin saga also underscores that Canada’s Inuit have lived for many centuries in the Arctic and are very much a part of this saga. The meetings between the ancient people and those who came later to the region is an exhilarating story that all Canadians can take pride in.

CG: What would the impact of a discovery of the Erebus and/or Terror be?

This is a story that goes beyond Canada’s borders. It’ll be of great interest to Canadians of course, but you’ll see enormous interest in Britain and other parts of the world, like Australia, where Franklin once served as governor of Tasmania, and the United States which has always had a fascination with the Franklin story. It’ll go beyond that too though, because mysteries belong to all of us.

CG: Why is this year’s search important to the Royal Canadian Geographical Society?

JG: For the first time, the search will be an RCGS flag expedition, and the symbolism of the RCGS flag is important. It’s representative of the spirit of exploration; great explorers have carried the flag all over the world. To carry it is a badge of honour, and this year, the flag will – very appropriately – be carried by all of the partners in the Victoria Strait search.

CG: How will Canadians benefit from the RCGS role in the search?

JG: The Royal Canadian Geographical Society promotes geographical education in schools. We tell stories through our magazine Canadian Geographic, and this project plays directly into our strengths. We’ll be telling the story of the Franklin expedition and the search for its lost ships in our magazine, and we’ll be sharing that story further through our educational programs, particularly the network of 11,000 teachers we work with across Canada.

The RCGS is Canada’s Centre for Exploration and geography. We celebrate it and promote it. We fund adventurous expeditions and post-graduate research. We host lectures by explorers and we honour the very best in geography and exploration.  This is what we do. This is our business.


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