Canadian divers will converge on the sunken Franklin shipwreck in a matter of days, trying to determine which of two famous Royal Navy vessels has been found and glean as much as possible before Arctic sea ice freezes over the location later this month.
It's possible the ship, which some Franklin history buffs speculate might be HMS Terror, may never be raised but left in its resting place after artifacts are removed because the risks of extraction, and the cost of preservation, will be very steep.
The Canadian government, meanwhile, is trying to keep private explorers at bay as long as possible from a find that has drawn headlines worldwide after it was announced Tuesday. It not only refuses to pinpoint the location of the wreck – somewhere in Queen Maud Gulf west of O'Reilly Island – but also adamantly declines to identify which day it was first found for fear freelance divers may be drawn to the site of the ill-fated British expedition that had perished trying to traverse the Northwest Passage.
While the find was identified as a Franklin expedition ship on Sept. 7, Parks Canada officials are staying mum on the date sonar scans first detected the object, hoping to make it harder for anyone using satellite-based tracking services to trace the path of the Coast Guard icebreaker or other vessels that assisted the Franklin search.
"I wouldn't be surprised if people are already contemplating how they might get up there," said John Geiger, chief executive officer of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. "It's a huge attraction for a community of people who have interest in wrecks and diving."
The government says it remains undecided about whether to leave the wreck or remove and preserve it as Norwegians are doing with explorer Roald Amundsen's ship Maud, which has laid for decades in the harbour of Cambridge Bay, Nunavut.
As early as Saturday, Parks Canada's underwater archaeologists will descend to the wreck, which lies in 11 metres of water, bringing high-definition video equipment to document their exploration.
The search team is prepared for the possibility it may find human remains, a development that would change how it explores the centuries-old vessel. Inuit accounts from the 19th century mention spotting the body of a white man in a ship adrift near O'Reilly Island.
"We are going to approach it as a site that may be a burial," Marc-Andre Bernier, chief of the underwater archeology team at Parks Canada, told reporters Wednesday.
Canada promised Britain in a 1997 agreement that it would refrain from disturbing or bringing to the surface any human remains discovered on the wreck or in the vicinity, except if they need to be removed to conduct archaeological work.
Ottawa says it hasn't decided whether to continue exploring once ice freezes solid over the wreck site. It could drill a hole to keep going – mindful of beating private explorers – or wait until next August when the area melts clear for about six weeks.
The wreck offers possible answers on what befell the doomed Franklin expedition, but also the prospect of an archeological treasure trove of artifacts, from military equipment to daguerreotype pictures to items sealed in water-tight containers.
"Given the preservation conditions in the Arctic with the cold water … we can expect to find anything," Mr. Bernier said.
Gold is one potential find Canada and Britain have already anticipated. The 1997 deal says London will assign Canada ownership of everything recovered except for gold and artifacts deemed important to the Royal Navy. Should gold be discovered, it will be split between London and Ottawa once coins deemed to be privately owned or claimed by third parties are deducted from the haul.
Canada also promised Britain that it wouldn't rush excavation of the shipwreck for publicity.
"Proper archaeological research and disclosure shall prevail over interests of financial gain and media coverage," the deal says.