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Finding doomed rescue ship just one piece of the Franklin puzzle

As archeologists celebrate their discovery of HMS Investigator - abandoned more than 150 years ago in the icy waters of Mercy Bay, 600 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle - they're only a third of the way through their own Arctic expedition.

The historic ship is just one of three that Parks Canada is trying to locate this summer. Investigator was on a rescue mission to locate HMS Erebus and HMS Terror when it became trapped by pack ice in 1850. The crew abandoned the ship three years later.

Now Parks Canada has stepped in where Investigator left off. On Aug. 10, two team members will travel further into the waters to look for Erebus and Terror.

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"I think the Investigator story shows it is possible to find these ships in the Arctic," said Marc-André Bernier, chief of the Underwater Archaeology Service at Parks Canada. "Those ships are mythical in the maritime history of Canada."

Sir John Franklin led Erebus and Terror on an expedition into the Arctic in 1845 in an attempt to complete a crossing of the Northwest Passage. The ships became trapped in ice in the Victoria Strait and all 129 crew members died. Canada named Erebus and Terror national historic sites in 1992, despite the fact that they have never been found.

Mr. Bernier says the Canadian Hydrographic Service has offered its help in the rough waters and ice where the ships are believed to have sunk. In exchange, Parks Canada will help CHS map the Arctic sea floor. And now is the best time to get started, Mr. Bernier says, because the sea ice is melting.

"For a long time the area wasn't open, but now it is because of climate change," Mr. Bernier said. "So they're working hard to take advantage of this."

Parks Canada has been planning the recovery of the three ships for a year, toiling over the logistics of getting a crew that far north. But once the crew arrived, and once the ice cleared in Mercy Bay, it took only 15 minutes to locate Investigator, almost perfectly intact, under 11 metres of water.

"We got an opening right where we wanted to search," Mr. Bernier said.

Mr. Bernier says it's not the ship itself but the significance of the relics left behind by the crew that was the driving force to find Investigator. Parks Canada has known about a "cache-site" on Banks Island for 10 years, but the Inuit there have been using materials like copper from the abandoned ship for more than a century.

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Mr. Bernier says that to understand how these materials affected Inuit culture, researchers needed to see the ship they came from.

"This ship represents the meeting of Europeans and Inuit in this part of the country," he said. "It's a place of encounter for two cultures."

Environment Minister Jim Prentice arrived at the camp on Tuesday, and almost immediately went out by boat to see Investigator. Speaking on a satellite phone from the equipment tent, Mr. Prentice said the ship has been nearly perfectly preserved by the Arctic waters. The masts have been sheared off by ice, he said, but otherwise there has been almost no damage.

When the surface water is still, the outline of the stern and the bow are clearly visible.

"It's not as though you're looking down into a wreckage of timbers," Mr. Prentice said. "You're actually looking down directly onto a perfectly intact ship."

Brian Payton, who spent years researching Investigator's history for his novel The Ice Passage, says the find is important for Canada's past and future. The crew members were our first eyes and ears on this environment, he says, and it's an environment we're now in danger of losing.

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Mr. Payton says Franklin's 1845 expedition failed in part because the crew was under the impression that it could sail, unobstructed, straight across the Arctic.

"The remarkable thing is that it is slowly becoming true because of global warming," Mr. Payton said. "It's a scary prospect."

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