When Sir John Franklin and his 128 men vanished without a trace in the Canadian Arctic in 1845, it led to the biggest and longest search and rescue missions in the history of polar exploration. More than 50 years, numerous ships and explorers made their way into the high north to look for the expedition and simultaneously for a passage through the Canadian Archipelago. The passage eventually was found, but the expedition and its two ships remained lost for almost two centuries. Until 2014, when the HMS Erebus, Franklin’s flag ship was found. Now, another search party also found the second ship, HMS Terror… almost 100 km south of its presumed sinking spot and perfectly intact.

The HMS Terror was a bomb vessel and built in 1812-13. After its use as a British warship, it was refitted and used as a polar expedition ship. It was 31 m long and had both sails and a steam engine with 30 hp, an iron-enforced bow and a crew of 67 men. Picture: National Archives of Canada
The HMS Terror was a bomb vessel and built in 1812-13. After its use as a British warship, it was refitted and used as a polar expedition ship. It was 31 m long and had both sails and a steam engine with 30 hp, an iron-enforced bow and a crew of 67 men. Picture: National Archives of Canada

The long-lost ship of British polar explorer Sir John Franklin, HMS Terror, has been found in pristine condition at the bottom of an Arctic bay, researchers have said, in a discovery that challenges the accepted history behind one of polar exploration’s deepest mysteries. HMS Terror and Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus, were abandoned in heavy sea ice far to the north of the eventual wreck site in 1848, during the Royal Navy explorer’s doomed attempt to complete the Northwest Passage. All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, in the worst disaster to hit Britain’s Royal Navy in its long history of polar exploration. Search parties continued to look for the ships for 11 years after they disappeared, but found no trace, and the fate of the missing men remained an enigma that tantalised generations of historians, archaeologists and adventurers. Now that mystery seems to have been solved by a combination of intrepid exploration and an improbable tip from an Inuk crewmember.

Sammy Kogvik, who lives in Gjøa Haven, a small Inuit community on King William Island, had only joined the ARF expedition shortly before and gave the decisive clue of the resting place of the HMS Terror. Picture: CTV News
Sammy Kogvik, who lives in Gjøa Haven, a small Inuit community on King William Island, had only joined the ARF expedition shortly before and gave the decisive clue of the resting place of the HMS Terror. Picture: CTV News

About six years ago, one of the crewmen of the ARF expedition, Sammy Kogvik from Gjøa Haven and a hunting buddy were headed on snowmobiles to fish in a lake when they spotted a large piece of wood, which looked like a mast, sticking out of the sea ice covering Terror Bay. Kogvik said he stopped that day to get a few snapshots of himself hugging the wooden object, only to discover when he got home that the camera had fallen out his pocket. He resolved to keep the encounter secret, fearing the missing camera was an omen of bad spirits. But when expedition leader Adrian Schimnowski heard Kogvik’s story, he didn’t dismiss it, as Inuit testimony has been so often during the long search for Franklin’s ships. Instead, the Bergmann’s crew agreed to make a detour for Terror Bay. The 10-member Bergmann crew found the massive shipwreck, with her three masts broken but still standing, almost all hatches closed and everything stowed, in the middle of King William Island’s uncharted Terror Bay on 3 September. Since, then, the discovery team has spent more than a week quietly gathering images of the vessel and comparing them with the Terror’s 19th century builders’ plans, which match key elements of the sunken vessel. On Sunday, the team manoeuvred a small, remotely operated vehicle through an open hatch and into the ship to capture stunning images that give insight into life aboard the vessel close to 170 years ago. “We have successfully entered the mess hall, worked our way into a few cabins and found the food storage room with plates and one can on the shelves,” Adrian Schimnowski. “We spotted two wine bottles, tables and empty shelving. Found a desk with open drawers with something in the back corner of the drawer.”

One of the outer decks of the HMS Terror. The ship is in a well-preserved state and scientists hope to learn more about the fate of the members of the Franklin expedition. Picture: Arctic Research Foundation
One of the outer decks of the HMS Terror. The ship is in a well-preserved state and scientists hope to learn more about the fate of the members of the Franklin expedition. Picture: Arctic Research Foundation

The well-preserved wreck matches the Terror in several key aspects, but it lies 60 miles (96km) south of where experts have long believed the ship was crushed by ice, and the discovery may force historians to rewrite a chapter in the history of exploration.  At first, the Terror seemed to be listing at about 45 degrees to starboard on the seabed. But on the third dive with a remotely operated vehicle, “we noticed the wreck is sitting level on the sea bed floor not at a list - which means the boat sank gently to the bottom,” Schimnowski said Monday. About 24 metres (80ft) down, the wreck is in perfect condition, with metal sheeting that reinforced the hull against sea ice clearly visible amid swaying kelp. A long, heavy rope line running through a hole in the ship’s deck suggests an anchor line may have been deployed before the Terror went down. If true, that sets up the tantalising possibility that British sailors re-manned the vessel after she was abandoned at the top of Victoria Strait in a desperate attempt to escape south.

The helm deck looks like it could still be used to steer the ship with its two wheel steering and bring it back home. Picture: Arctic Research Foundation
The helm deck looks like it could still be used to steer the ship with its two wheel steering and bring it back home. Picture: Arctic Research Foundation

One crucial detail in the identification of the ship is a wide exhaust pipe rising above the outer deck. It is in the precise location where a smokestack rose from the locomotive engine which was installed in the Terror’s belly to power the ship’s propeller through closing sea ice, said Schimnowski. The ship’s bell lies on its side on the deck, close to where the sailor on watch would have have swung the clapper to mark time. And the majestic bowsprit, six metres (20ft) long, still points straight out from the bow. The wreck is in such good condition that glass panels are still in three of four tall windows in the stern cabin where the ship’s commander, Captain Francis Crozier, slept and worked, Schimnowski added. “This vessel looks like it was buttoned down tight for winter and it sank,” he said. “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.”

The ship’s bell was found by a ROV and looks remarkably well. If researchers succeed in retrieving the bell, it could be united again with the bell of the HMS Erebus. Picture: Arctic Research Foundation
The ship’s bell was found by a ROV and looks remarkably well. If researchers succeed in retrieving the bell, it could be united again with the bell of the HMS Erebus. Picture: Arctic Research Foundation

The Arctic Research Foundation (ARF) was set up by Jim Balsillie, a Canadian tech tycoon and philanthropist, who co-founded Research in Motion and was the creator of the Blackberry. Balsillie, who also played a key role in planning the expedition, proposed a theory to explain why it seems both Terror and Erebus sank far south of where they were first abandoned. “This discovery changes history,” he says. “Given the location of the find [in Terror Bay] and the state of the wreck, it’s almost certain that HMS Terror was operationally closed down by the remaining crew who then re-boarded HMS Erebus and sailed south where they met their ultimate tragic fate.”

Source: The Guardian / CTV News