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Parks Canada forced to play catch up on HMS Terror find

The HMS Terror's ship's helm (wheel) astern of the skylight for the Captain's Cabin.

Thierry Boyer / PARKS CANADA

Parks Canada has confirmed that a wreck spotted in deep water off King William Island in Nunavut earlier this month is HMS Terror, one of two ill-fated ships that set off in 1845 with British explorer Sir John Franklin on a quest to find the Northwest Passage.

Well-documented features of the three-masted wood-and-iron ship, including its double-wheeled helm, are clearly identifiable. This effectively rules out the possibility the wreck could be something else, said members of the underwater archeological team that visited the site in mid-September.

In a conference call with reporters on Monday, the team members noted that the Terror is in excellent shape, raising hopes it will provide a trove of information about the expedition's final tragic chapters.

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"It appears to be remarkably intact from stem to stern," said Ryan Harris, senior underwater archeologist with Parks Canada. "It makes for a rather dramatic visual to see this stately ship lying on the sea floor."

Related: New footage offers look into HMS Erebus wreck

Working from the Canadian coast guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the team visited the wreck for three days to validate the discovery, made on Sept. 3 by crew members of the Martin Bergmann, a converted trawler operated by the Arctic Research Foundation. The not-for-profit foundation, created in 2012 by businessman Jim Balsillie, was also involved in the discovery of Terror's sister ship, the Erebus, in 2014.

Parks Canada revealed the Canadian government was not made aware of the discovery until Sept. 11. The archeologists began their work on Sept. 15, well after the Martin Bergmann crew's initial investigation of the Terror by video camera from a remotely operated underwater vehicle.

"We acknowledge there was a delay in the information coming our way," chief underwater archeologist Marc-Andre Bernier said. "As soon as we were notified, we mobilized."

The foundation's actions appear to have violated an agreement Parks Canada said it had with the organization. Parks Canada said in a statement that it was to have played the lead role in all underwater archeological activities related to both Franklin ships, including visual inspection, photography and video recording, and that "both parties would work together to determine timing for making announcements and releasing new information to the public."

The Terror was found in 24 metres of water in a location coincidentally named after the ship, known as Terror Bay. It lies well outside the boundary of a federal national historic site designated in 2015 to encompass the two wrecks.

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One of the key questions researchers hope to answer is how the Terror got where it is and whether surviving crew members re-manned it after it is thought to have been abandoned when both ships were trapped in ice.

Mr. Harris said the apparent preservation of the contents of the ship "offers opportunities that just boggles the imagination," including the possibility of sealed off cabins in which written documents and charts may have survived.

The Parks Canada team said it saw no signs of human remains or artifacts on the ship, but noted that its upper deck was covered in a layer of sediment that would likely bury and preserve any artifacts.

In a related statement, Parks Canada said the federal government is working with Nunavut and Inuit organizations on "the matter of joint ownership of artifacts" from both ships.

The multiyear search for the Franklin ships has been widely covered in the media, but some Arctic researchers wonder why more resources have not been directed to finding and studying the thousands of pre-European archeological sites that are thought to exist across the Canadian high Arctic, some dating back 5,000 years. Unlike the Franklin ships, archeological sites on land in the Arctic are threatened by melting permafrost due to climate change and, in some areas, sea level rise.

Parks Canada said this year's expedition was budgeted at $350,000 before the discovery of the Terror.

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