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Treasures from sunken HMS Investigator offer glimpse into past

Ryan Harris, director of Parks Canada at the wreck of the HMS Investigator

Parks Canada

A trove of artifacts recovered from a vessel that was sent in search of the ill-fated Franklin expedition more than a century and a half ago is raising hopes that the expedition's still-lost ships have left behind similarly well-preserved remains.

Since its discovery in 2010, HMS Investigator has offered a revealing glimpse of the preparations and forethought that went into Great Britain's high Arctic voyages of the mid-19th century.

"When you see the ship underwater still standing after all these years in such a harsh environment … you go back in time," said Marc-André Bernier, chief of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada, based in Ottawa.

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The Investigator lies in eight to 10 metres of water off Banks Island in the Northwest Territories, near where sailors abandoned it in 1853 after being icebound for three years. The ship's crew was charged with looking for signs of Sir John Franklin's expedition, which disappeared in 1846 while trying to chart a route through the Northwest Passage. Unable to find Franklin, the crew of the Investigator nearly met the same fate. But they were able to walk overland to another ship, HMS Resolute, which also became trapped in ice. Both crews were eventually rescued and returned to England in 1854.

In 2011, Mr. Bernier participated in an expedition to document the wreck and study its state of preservation. Diving teams worked around the clock during a nine-day interval when the site was ice-free, eventually bringing 16 carefully chosen objects to the surface. A detailed analysis of those objects is allowing researchers to build a picture of how the Investigator, a converted whaling ship, was equipped for its mission to Canada's far north.

The objects, which include metal fasteners of different kinds and fragments of wood from the ship's rigging, also establish a baseline that will allow scientists to track the rate at which different parts of the ship are deteriorating, Mr. Bernier said.

"Generally speaking, the hull is very stable. That's what we're seeing."

The Investigator's survival over the past 160 years may be attributed, in part, to good luck. A sonar scan of the area around it shows long tracks where icebergs have gouged the seafloor. Although it has sustained some damage from ice and its top portions have been sheared away, the wreck is otherwise intact and upright, half-buried in silt.

"We were surprised the ice didn't do more damage," Mr. Bernier added.

This bodes well for the continuing effort to find the remains of the Erebus and the Terror, which Franklin and his crew sailed into the Northwest Passage and abandoned in heavy ice. Inuit accounts suggest the 128 men died after leaving the ships. Their fate remains one of the north's enduring mysteries.

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Mr. Bernier is part of an effort by the Canadian government and academic and industry partners to locate the two ships, which are presumed to lie somewhere in Victoria Strait, about 1,000 kilometres to the southeast of the Investigator's final resting place.

The search is expected to resume next summer.

Further work on the Investigator could yield a rich hoard of scientific treasures. Although it was seeking Franklin, the ship's voyage was also one of discovery. It approached the Northwest Passage from the west, after first sailing around South America.

A horn cleat recovered from the ship was made of a tropical wood – possibly the sign of a repair. during the southern portion of the journey The ship may still contain flora and fauna picked up along the way, as British explorations did at the time.

"They were in the habit of collecting just about everything," Mr. Bernier said.

A full scientific report on the Investigator is in progress.

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On Tuesday, Parks Canada will release a book of photos from the wreck.

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