Monday, April 24, 2017

HMS "Terror" Muddle

Thanks to the diligent detective work of Steve Ducharme of the Nunatsiaq News, we now know a good deal more about the Franklin searches of the summer of 2016. Some of what he's uncovered is simply the inevitable back-and-forth between the agency charged with issuing archaeological permits -- the Culture and Heritage department of the Government of Nunavut -- and those seeking such permits, whether the underwater archaeologists of Parks Canada, or those working on sites on land, such as the recently-retired director of that department, Doug Stenton. And yet the case has, as Sherlock Holmes used to like to say, "several point of interest," meaning that not everything may be as it may seems. This is especially true with regard to the activities of the Arctic Research Foundation which, since it isn't an agency of the government, is not subject to laws requiring the disclosure of information to the public.

The first major takeaway is that the GN's Heritage division did two odd things in the same season: it approved a permit for Doug Stenton to do land-based archaeological work in the Terror Bay area, and it issued a specific restriction preventing the Parks underwater team from listing Terror Bay as a fallback search area, should their primary search area in Victoria Strait prove inaccessible. The language was surprising: "Terror Bay is not approved as an alternate survey site. There is no historical, oral historical, or archaeological evidence identifying Terror Bay as a possible location for one of the Franklin wrecks." In hindsight, of course, this sounds foolish, but even at the time it's a bit odd. True, prior to the 2016 discovery no one had singled out Terror Bay as a specific location for one of the ships -- but no one had excluded it either. Some known points -- the existence of a "Tent Place" on the shore there, the discovery of a crumpled metal tank by Patsy Klengenberg's wife in 1931, suggested the presence of some vessel in the vicinity, at least for a time. Even back in 2010, before either ship had been found, I wrote in this blog that "we can suppose that they (Erebus and Terror) were trapped again, and one of the vessels crushed, in either Erebus Bay or Terror Bay, or both."

So I think it's wrong to have claimed there was no evidence as to a ship in Terror Bay -- as with many aspects of the Franklin story, there was indeed evidence that, in retrospect, can be seen as having pointed there -- the key factor seems to have been Stenton's plan to do work on land at the site. Perhaps he hoped that, as had happened in 2014 when his helicopter pilot Andrew Stirling had spied what turned out to be part of a ship's davit, a discovery on land would once again point the way to a still greater one underwater. The language of his application -- “Time and weather permitting, an aerial search will also be conducted in eastern Terror Bay in an attempt to locate a sunken vessel reported at the location by Inuit” -- suggests that he was being disingenuous at the very least. One wonders whether these Inuit reports were the ones of today, or from older testimony. Could Sammy Kogvik's account have been known about before that summer?

In any case, all that is little more than a minor kerfuffle when compared to the major revelations in Ducharme's article: 1) That the Arctic Research Foundation was not named in the 2016 permit at all, since Parks expected to  assign the Martin Bergmann as a vessel under their supervision; and that 2) That although the RCMP conducted a two-month investigation into the actions of the crew of the Bergmann, with an eye to violations of the archaeological provisions of the Nunavut Act, it ended its probe due to "insufficient evidence." This is stunning, since the violations are crystal clear: the Bergmann was not named on the permit, and had no right to conduct any independent search of any kind, and the place they looked -- whether they knew it or not -- had been specifically forbidden. The Nunavut Act states that, without a permit, no vessel, diver, or underwater device may come within 30 meters of a potential underwater archaeological site:
No person, other than a person engaged in a search and rescue operation, shall dive, or approach with an underwater submersible, to within 30 m of an archaeological artifact without a Class 2 permit.
And yet ARF's own video, made after an earlier camera rig had snagged on the wreck and been lost, not only shows that they went much closer, but actually penetrated within the vessel.

We may, as have many who've written about the discovery of HMS Terror, happily credit Inuit accounts, as given by Sammy Kogvik, for this fortuitous find. We may revel in what the video shows us, and thrill at the discovery of the ship in such extraordinary condition. But a discovery that deliberately flouts the law is a danger to all discovery; it opens the wrecks of Franklin's ships to prodding by any party who thinks they can get away with it, as ARF did. ARF furthermore hid the discovery from its partner -- indeed, given the permit was issued only in Parks's name, its supervisor -- for eight days at least, giving an exclusive version of of the find to photojournalist Paul Watson, who then sold it to The Guardian. Keeping the people under whose permit they were to have worked in the dark, and probing a sensitive wreck with no supervision from trained archaeologists, would seem to be a fairly clear-cut case. ARF's belated claim that there was no "updated protocol" for 2016 makes no difference -- if there was indeed no such protocol, they should never have been participating in the search at all.

Despite all this, it's my hope that, as this summer's search approaches, we can all once more get back to the fundamental fascination with the Franklin story that drives all of us who have encountered it. I hope that the new agreements between Parks Canada and key Inuit organizations will make these new finds more readily available, and will increase the benefit to local communities. I hope that those who work on land, and those who dive below the waters, will come to see that each side possesses a part of a symmetric puzzle, both of which will be required to fully understand it. And, above all, I hope that both of Franklin's ships will be effectively protected from those whose lack of care and knowledge may damage the vital evidence these almost sacred vessels have preserved within their oaken hulls for more than a century and a half.


  1. To further confuse the issue, my notes for Dr. Stenton's presentation "Death on a Distant Shore" at the Royal Ontario Museum say that in conversation afterward: "Stenton says they were told the story that there was something where the water deepens in Terror Bay, went by helicopter & searched but saw nothing Last year. Also searched all around Terror Bay for the big camp site (hospital) but didn't see anything." They saw several cairns. I had assumed that "Last year" meant the summer of 2015.

  2. When the discovery was initially announced, I had assumed that all parties were working in close cooperation. As events unfolded and hiding behind "protocols" became apparent, it bothered me that professionals of Park Canada were not even in the loop for several days. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for professionalism from the ARF.
    I do hope procedural issues are a thing of the past and if so, it will allow the story to unfold as it should. How many chances will we get to "discover"? We can't afford to mess anything up as these archaeological sites are too important for mere enthusiasm to become doctrine.