Divers Discovered A Forgotten Shipwreck, And What Lay Inside May Solve A Centuries-Old Mystery

Divers slide into the chilly waters of the Canadian Arctic’s Terror Bay. There, they descend to the astonishingly well-preserved shipwreck of HMS Terror. Now, it was one of two ships that departed from England and mysteriously disappeared on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition of 1845. Next, the divers insert a small remotely controlled vehicle (ROV) with a camera through an open hatch. And now they have a clear view of the ship’s interior. Startlingly, they’re the first to see it in over 170 years.

In diving footage taken in August 2019 by the ROV, the scenes at 80 feet down are both entrancing and haunting. In the ship’s mess, plates and cups are still in place on the shelves, surrounded by heaps of silt. Furthermore, the ROV reveals a corridor containing the officers’ cabins on each side, complete with bunks and chamber pots.

As the ROV gets to the end of the corridor, it arrives at a room where two rifles hang from the wall. But they’re so encrusted in rust that they’re only just recognizable. Above deck, the ship’s wooden wheel still stands. And both the exterior and interior of the wreck are generally covered in a stunning variety of marine wildlife.

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Archaeologist Ryan Harris, who is leading the project for Parks Canada, told the Smithsonian in 2019, “As we venture tentatively through each cabin, one after the next, you get the arresting notion that you’re physically inside the private shipboard space of all these individuals, that you are this close to their personal lives.”

Now, the reason HMS Terror is so well preserved in its watery grave is the particular environmental conditions at play. For the extremely cold waters have acted over many decades as a preservative. For example, the ice covering that exists for all but a few weeks of the year, keeps out light and lowers oxygen levels.

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When HMS Terror was first discovered in 2016, Adrian Schimnowski of the Arctic Research Foundation told The Guardian, “This vessel looks like it was buttoned down tight for winter and it sank. Everything was shut. Even the windows are still intact. If you could lift this boat out of the water, and pump the water out, it would probably float.”

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We’ll come back to the discovery of the Terror and the answers it might provide us with later. But first, let’s go back to the beginning of the Franklin story. To start with we’ll meet Sir John Franklin, the leader of the project and the man who gave it his name.

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Born in England in 1786, Franklin went to sea with the Royal Navy in 1800 aboard HMS Polyphemus. And an exciting naval career ensued as he got older, seeing battle under the command of Admiral Horatio Nelson. But he was also involved in a naval expedition to Australia and fought against the Americans during the War of 1812. Unfortunately, Franklin was wounded in the latter conflict at the 1814 Battle of Lake Borgne.

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But Franklin’s career as an explorer for the Royal Navy started in 1819 when he led the Coppermine Expedition. This involved mapping Canada’s north coast from the Coppermine River. During this expedition, 11 0f Franklin’s 20 men perished, mostly through hunger. Things were so bad, apparently, that the men were reduced to eating their boots and, some said, even to cannibalism. As we’ll see, this expedition was perhaps a grim sign of events in Franklin’s future.

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More exploratory expeditions followed for Franklin including into northern Canada’s Arctic region. Then in 1837 Franklin, now a knight of the realm, was appointed Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, now Australian Tasmania. But Franklin left that post in 1843 amid political acrimony. However, a new challenge lay just over the horizon.

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Yes, because the British were anxious to accurately chart what was known as the Northwest Passage. This was the putative maritime route along North America’s northern coast, through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and on to the Pacific Ocean. And the prize for discovering a way through this passage would be a viable trade route all the way to Asia. Or at least that was the hope.

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Now, Sir John was chosen to lead this Royal Navy exploration at the age of 59. And as we’ve seen it came to be known as the Franklin Expedition. But crucially, the two ships selected for the enterprise were HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. Captain Francis Crozier took command of the former, and Captain James Fitzjames the latter.

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Furthermore, both ships were equipped with the best that the technology and expertise of the mid-19th century had to offer. And Terror, launched in 1813, was originally built as a Royal Navy bomb ship. Yes, it was an attack vessel that fired mortars rather than cannon. But she was converted into a Polar exploration vessel in the 1830s.

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What’s more, Terror was well-suited to her new role in Arctic exploration as she had a reinforced frame. Now while this was designed to withstand mortars, it gave the vessel the necessary strength to navigate ice-packed waters, too. Before Franklin took her over, she had proved her worth in expeditions both in Antarctic and Arctic waters.

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Interestingly, marine engineers fitted Terror and Erebus with steam engines that had previously driven railroad locomotives. Although these were salvaged engines, they made the two vessels the most modern in the Royal Navy. However, since storage for coal was limited the two vessels would still be expected to spend most time under sail.

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Also, the two ships were given hull-strengthening steel plates, and the decks were reinforced with cross-laid timbers. Once the two vessels were refitted, it was time to load the stores they would need for up to three years. Yes, porters loaded Terror and Erebus with: 24 tons of meat; 8,000 cans of food; two tons of tobacco. If that weren’t enough, Terror even had a library with 1,200 volumes.

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With 110 sailors and 24 officers, the two ships embarked from the southern English port of Greenhithe on May 19, 1845. Then, both Terror and Erebus anchored for a short time at Stromness in the Orkney Islands before heading for Greenland. What’s more, five men left the ships at this point, bringing the staff total down to 129. In all, the passage to Greenland would take around a month.

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Astonishingly though, the last time anyone saw both crew was when they sailed into Baffin Bay to the west of Greenland. And this was around August, 1945. Thus begun one of the enduring maritime mysteries of the last 170 years. Naturally, after two years had passed with no communication or news of any kind from the two ships, anxiety grew.

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That’s right, it was a difficult time for the British but a much worse ordeal for the families of the missing. So the British press and parliament began to pressure the Navy to send a mission to search for Terror and Erebus. And Lady Jane, Franklin’s wife, was one of the most vocal in this campaign.

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However, an apparently complacent Admiralty claimed that there was no real cause for concern. Nevertheless, it hatched a plan to search for the missing men and their ships. In fact, there were no less than three search groups sent off in the hunt for Franklin’s expedition. In the spring of 1848, one party went overland, while two others traveled by sea.

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But all three of those search efforts drew a complete blank. And tragically, the unknown fate of Franklin became a cause célèbre, and even a ballad was written about the affair: “Lady Franklin’s Lament.” “Ten thousand pounds I would freely give/ To know on earth, that my Franklin do live,” one line of the song proclaimed.

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In spite of the bad luck, searches for the missing expedition continued in the following years. For instance, two American and 11 British ships sailed through the Canadian Arctic in 1850 hunting for clues. And they found the first traces of the expedition on the east coast of Beechey Island. Yes, the searchers discovered the remnants of a camp from the winter of 1845 and 1846.

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Sadly, there were also three graves at the Beechey Island site: John Torrington, Terror’s Lead Stoker; while Able Seaman, John Hartnell and Private William Braine of the Royal Marines had been on Erebus. But there no was no clue as to what had happened to the Franklin Expedition after this winter encampment.

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Mind you, Admiral Edward Belcher led another Royal Navy expedition to search for Franklin and his men in 1852. And of the five vessels that set sail, four had to be abandoned after they became trapped in heavy ice. Therefore, Belcher was court-martialled for his alleged carelessness but found not guilty. More importantly, the world was no closer to knowing the fate of Franklin and his men.

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In an extraordinary aside, one of the ships abandoned by Belcher, HMS Resolute was later salvaged by an American whaler. And he returned it to the British who used the ship’s oak timbers to build a desk. Amazingly, Queen Victoria then presented this desk to American President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 as a gift for the rescue. Subsequently, many presidents have used the desk including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. On that note, let’s get back to our story.

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So the next news of the Franklin Expedition came via the Inuit people. You see, John Rae, a Scotsman from the Orkney Islands, was surveying in the Canadian Arctic for the Hudson Bay Company. And he met some Inuit people who told him that a party of white men had starved to death at the Back River. One of the Inuit claimed that the desperate men, “35 to 40” in number, had even resorted to cannibalism.

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Intriguingly, the Inuit were able to back up there assertions by showing Rae a variety of artifacts. And these included silver tableware that had certainly come from the Franklin Expedition. So Rae now urged the Admiralty to renew its searches, concentrating on the Back River. But the naval authorities possibly believed they’d spent enough time and money searching for Franklin and his men. Therefore, they were officially declared dead in March 1854.

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Now, the Admiralty might have given up, but there were several more private searches over the years. For instance, Lady Franklin commissioned a search herself, and in 1857 a schooner, the Fox set sail from Aberdeen in Scotland. Then, In 1859, a search party from Fox discovered notes in a cairn on King William Island. They were written by the captains of Terror and Erebus, Crozier and Fitzjames.

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The first, from May 28, 1847 said that the two Franklin ships had wintered on the ice near King William Island. “Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well,” the note read. But the second note, written on the edges of the first, was much grimmer. Indeed, dated April 25, 1848, it said that Terror and Erebus had been caught in pack ice for 18 months. Tragically, though, that wasn’t all.

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For you see, the message also said that the men had abandoned their vessels. And the death toll was now 24, including Sir John Franklin. Meanwhile, Crozier had assumed expedition command, and he and 105 survivors were planning to walk south to the Back River. Apparent dating errors in the note perhaps indicated the extreme stress that Crozier and his men were now suffering.

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In the following years and decades, further expeditions discovered skeletons, graves and artifacts appearing to be from the two ships. And further testimony from Inuit people confirmed the ultimate deadly fate of the men from the Franklin Expedition. Grimly, a study of the Franklin men’s bones in 2015 confirmed there probably had been cannibalism, as the Inuit had claimed.

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Obviously, as the years had gone by, it was clear that all of the 129 who sailed with Franklin were dead. But one lingering mystery remained: What had happened to HMS Terror and Erebus? Well, the first breakthrough came in September 2014 when a party discovered Erebus to the west of the Adelaide Peninsula. Then, just two years later, the wreck of the Terror was discovered just 45 miles from Erebus.

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Sadly, Parks Canada researchers reported in September 2018 that Erebus’ condition had worsened due to stormy weather. But as we already know, Terror is in an extraordinarily good state of preservation. And the divers who’d visited the wreck in August 2019 were astonished by how well the ship had survived.

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As Ryan Harris, head of archaeology for the Parks Canada project, told National Geographic, “The ship is amazingly intact. You look at it and find it hard to believe this is a 170-year-old shipwreck. You just don’t see this kind of thing very often.” And this incredible level of preservation may provide some answers as to exactly how the Franklin Expedition met with tragedy.

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In particular, Captain Crozier’s cabin aboard the Terror may contain vital new information. Speaking to the Daily Mail in August 2019, Marc-André Bernier of Parks Canada said, “The condition in which we found Captain Crozier’s cabin greatly surpasses our expectations. Not only are the furniture and cabinets in place, drawers are closed and many are buried in silt, encapsulating objects and documents in the best possible conditions for their survival.”

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As Bernier continued to explain, “Each drawer and other enclosed space will be a treasure trove of unprecedented information on the fate of the Franklin Expedition.” So now Crozier’s desk may contain an explanation as to why the men of the Terror abandoned ship. Parks Canada’s Harris told the Smithsonian, “This is an opportunity to write the next chapter in what happened in that expedition.” But that’s not all.

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No, because unexpectedly finding the ship’s equipment in good order, too, has left experts scratching their heads further. As Harris went on to tell National Geographic, “There’s no obvious reason for Terror to have sunk. “It wasn’t crushed by ice, and there’s no breach in the hull. Yet it appears to have sunk swiftly and suddenly and settled gently to the bottom. What happened?”

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Well, at least an initial clue emerged when Harris took a look at Terror’s motor. He told National Geographic, “We noticed the ship’s propeller still in place. We know that it had a mechanism to lift it out of the water during winter so that it wouldn’t be damaged by the ice. “So, the fact that it’s deployed suggests it was probably spring or summer when the ship sank.” And there were other signs of a spring/summer incident, too.

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“So, too, does the fact that none of the skylights were boarded up, as they would have been to protect them against the winter snows,” Harris explained. So what’s next for the archeologists still looking for answers? Well the plan is to excavate both wreckage sites where the bounty of evidence lies. There’s one problem though, and it doesn’t exactly allow them to work as fast as they’d like.

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“Diving up here is extremely difficult,” Harris explained to National Geographic. “The water is extremely cold, making it impossible to stay down for very long, and the diving season is short—a few weeks [a year] if you’re lucky, a few days if you’re not.” That means that the process to retrieve the artifacts is likely to take years, not months. Even so, the team is still bringing us closer to knowing what went wrong with the Franklin Expedition. So fingers crossed that the preserving ice around the HMS Terror doesn’t melt – just yet .

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