Friday, July 17, 2009

Where to search for Franklin's ships?

With the news that the private search for Franklin's ships will be the only one this summer, the practical question of where to look for Franklin's ships is re-opened. Robert Grenier had planned to search in the vicinity of the Royal Geographical Society Islands, but apparently Rob Rondeau and his team plan to look much further north, in the vicinity of Larsen sound, scanning an area south of where the ships were reported abandoned in the "Victory Point" record of 1848. But what are the odds that something will be found there? The map above, which I obtained some years ago from Ice Services Canada, shows the mean surface water currents throughout the Canadian Arctic. If you look at the area in question, you'll see two currents -- one hugging the shores of King William Island and tending to the north and northeast, and another, heading south and southwest along the coast of Victoria Island. The ice, of course, is subject to other forces than current, and generally flows south/southwest through the channel, though younger ice along the coast of KWI can often follow the contrary current northward.

If we assume that one of Franklin's ships was crushed not far from the original abandonment, the debris from this wreck could then go in either direction. Material embedded in the ice would have tended south, while material caught in the current way well have scattered to the north. Only a heavy object -- such as the ship's modified railway engine -- would be likely to plummet to the bottom at the site of the sinking. Yet whether one ship was crushed at this point is debatable; there are clear accounts by Inuit eyewitnesses to the sinking of one ship, and as David Woodman points out, this must have happened later, and further south than the abandonment, as the Inuit almost never visited the northwest quadrant of King William Island -- a fact corroborated by the clear evidence that the large cache of materials near Victory Point was not disturbed by Inuit until after they heard about it from white men. The crushing of one ship, then, may well have occurred much further south, and indeed the RGS Islands are a likely site, as the ice floes here, compressed by the narrowing channels, are turned into a jumbled, upended mouthful of teeth that could easily masticate any matter sent through them.

We do, as it happens, have some material evidence of where debris might end up -- when Dr. John Rae was on Victoria Island, he discovered several large pieces of wood, parts of which were painted a distinctive yellow color used by the Royal Navy, which he only belatedly realized must have come from the "Erebus" or "Terror." Such a find, if it came from a crushed ship, strongly suggests that the vessel was nearer the Victoria than the King William shore, as otherwise the surface ice would not have brought it within Rae's sight.

One last tale -- and a more terrifying one it is than any of the ship's slow crushing -- is that one or both of Franklin's ships was trapped in an iceberg and carried out to sea. This idea, long championed by my good friend Joe O'Farrell, is based on accounts by passengers on ships far to the east, who saw, or seemed to see, an iceberg pass by in which were embedded two stranded ships. Such a tale might be easily dismissed, were it not for cases such as that of HMS "Resolute," which drifted, unpiloted, along the same general route as this iceberg would have had to take, ending up in the Davis Straits. If indeed this story holds any (frozen) water, then Franklin's ships would be far off in the North Atlantic somewhere -- perhaps even near where the Titanic kept its much later date with an iceberg.

There remain many Inuit tales of a ship, apparently deliberately anchored in relatively shallow water, with a boarding plank lowered and some sweepings or debris from the deck on the ice nearby. These stories are detailed and vivid, and were repeated with nearly all the same details to Schwatka in the 1870's and Rasmussen in the 1920's. It is this ship -- the "Ootjoolik" wreck -- which David Woodman has searched for so patiently, as it is far more likely to be at least partially intact. Outside of the channels of the scouring ice, it may well be in a state of preservation approaching that of the "Breadalbane" near Beechey Island, which vessel was found with its sails still hanging from upright masts.


  1. Seems like thousands of square miles to search, and no real way to narrow it down. (Unlike Titanic...)

    How could both Terror and Erebus get embedded in the same iceberg?

  2. I expect that Rondeau will start with the ships' last reported position and follow their projected course -- with side-scan sonar he should be able to scan a fairly broad area long that path. Of course, if the projections are off, then so are all bets. Much the same was true of RMS Titanic -- both Ballard and a French concern had been trolling the waters back and forth over their (overlapping but distinct) search grids. There is always an element of routine ...

    As to "Erebus" and "Terror" in the same berg -- I'm skeptical of this, as I am certain at least one of the ships was anchored further south. But it's conceivable that a single ship, if she'd used her ice anchors to secure herself to a berg, and ended up trapped there, or crushed when that berg struck another, it's not impossible that the remnants of such a vessel would remain embedded.

  3. Are there documented cases of a ship becoming embedded in an iceberg?

  4. Russell, thanks again - I so enjoy reading your blog.

    A question for you, Dave and any others that may want to respond: If you were to head a search (or another search) for the Terror and Erebus, where would you start and why?

    One more - in the various reports on your other site, there are detailed maps that outline the search areas covered by that particular report. Are you aware of anyone or organization that has collected information on all the various searches and combined them into a common report or map? Hope that makes sense!



    P.S. I'm not giving up hope that Parks Canada and the Canadian Coast Guard will get something organized for this year.

  5. Hi Mike,

    Thanks for the kind words! I'm sure Dave will want to comment as well, but of course what I would say is that they should search in the vicinity of the western coast of the Adelaide Peninsula. Dave's expeditions are the only ones to have searched in this area, and thanks to their work, significant chunks of this region can be eliminated.

    No one has, so far as I know, plotted all of the Woodman searches on a single map. It should be done, but I haven't the knowledge to do it accurately. This could be added to what's shown on Gould's chart, along with areas searched by "Operation Franklin" -- subtract what has been searched, and the right vessel would, I believe, have a fair chance of finding something!

  6. The ships on the ice floe were near Newfoundland and were probably sealing vessels, which were lost with some regularity in the 19th and 20th centuries.

  7. 'There remain many Inuit tales of a ship, apparently deliberately anchored in relatively shallow water, with a boarding plank lowered and some sweepings or debris from the deck on the ice.."
    - Very accurate for the Terror 👏