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The HMS Erebus and HMS Terror leave England in 1845, never to return.

Researchers had been hoping to take advantage of an opening in the Arctic sea ice to explore a northern area where one of Sir John Franklin's lost ships is believed to have sunk.

But a shift in the weather and heavy ice coverage held them back, forcing the group to continue their efforts in another stretch of water further south. That's where the expedition had a stroke of luck: An archeological crew walking the shores of a small island in Queen Maud Gulf found two small artifacts from a British Royal Navy ship – an encouraging sign that one of the famous shipwrecks could be nearby.

A Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker dispatched a smaller vessel to comb the seabed, and it soon picked up signs of a wreck just 11 metres beneath the water's surface. An autonomous underwater vehicle – which is like an underwater robot – confirmed it was one of the two lost ships.

The discovery brings researchers one step closer to unravelling a 19th-century mystery that is viewed by many as a pillar of Canada's northern identity. The doomed 1845 Franklin expedition disappeared while searching for the storied Northwest Passage, but the location of its two ships – the HMS Erebus and Terror – was long unknown.

It's believed that one of the ships was lost somewhere in the eastern Queen Maud Gulf, while the other may be further north, in the Victoria Strait.

Jim Balsillie, former co-chief executive officer of Research in Motion, was one of the major backers of the Parks Canada project through the Arctic Research Foundation, which he founded. He joined the expedition temporarily in late August and said he had been pleased that some researchers might have an opportunity to venture to the more northerly search area.

But the ice was not in their favour, Mr. Balsillie said, and the group headed south to join another set of research vessels about a week ago. The change in plans turned out to be fortuitous: One of the ships was discovered just days later in the southern search area.

"Lo and behold, because of that change of plans, they were actually able to push into farther reaches of the south this summer," Mr. Baslillie said. "And in 11 metres of water they found – right in the eastern part of Queen Maud Gulf – they found one of the vessels."

Ryan Harris, an underwater archeologist with Parks Canada who helped lead the Franklin search, said a sonar image showed the ship five metres off the sea floor in the bow, and four metres off the floor in the stern. He said the image indicates that some of the deck structures on the ship are still intact, including the main mast, which was sheared off by ice when the ship sank. It's likely that the contents of the ship are also well-preserved, Mr. Harris said.

Adrian Schimnowski, operational director for the Arctic Research Foundation, said the search was initially narrowed down to two main areas based in part on Inuit accounts, artifacts on the shoreline and studies of ice movements: the eastern Queen Maud Gulf further south and the Victoria Strait further north.

Mr. Schimnowski, who plans to rejoin the expedition on Wednesday, said that when archeologists found artifacts on a nearby island, it was immediately seen as a positive sign that the wreck in the southern search area could be nearby. It took just two passes for the small vessel that was deployed from the Coast Guard icebreaker to discover the first underwater signs of the shipwreck, he said.

Parks Canada has led six major searches for the lost ships since 2008. The search this summer was led by four vessels: the Canadian Coast Guard ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Royal Canadian Navy's HMCS Kingston and vessels from the Arctic Research Foundation and One Ocean Expeditions.

Mr. Balsillie said his interest in the lost Franklin ships was piqued in 2008, after he spotted two private vessels – one from Russia and another from the United States – in an area where the ships are believed to be lost. And he said he wanted to help make sure that a Canadian expedition would be the first to uncover that missing link in its history. "One could say this is the most important undiscovered, known artifact out there in the world today, and we found it in Canada," he said.

With a report from The Canadian Press