Fresh images of HMS Terror shipwreck could clear up lingering mysteries

Parks Canada has released new images from the first underwater exploration of the shipwreck of the HMS. The ongoing study of the shipwreck and its artifacts should shed more light on Captain Sir John S. Franklin‘s doomed Arctic expedition to cross the Northwest Passage in 1846. Franklin’s two ships, the HMS and the HMS , became icebound in the Victoria Strait, and all 129 crew members ultimately died.

It’s been an enduring mystery that has captured imaginations ever since. Novelist Dan Simmons immortalized the expedition in his 2007 horror novel, , which was later adapted into an anthology TV series for AMC in 2018. (Season 2 of the TV show, set in the Japanese internment camps of World War II, is currently airing.)

The was actually a repurposed warship, having survived the War of 1812 among other skirmishes. The expedition set sail on May 19, 1845 and was last seen in July 1845 in Baffin Bay by the captains of two whaling ships. Historians have managed to piece together a reasonably credible rough account of what happened. The crew spent the winter of 1845-1846 on Beechey Island, where the graves of three crew members were found. When the weather cleared, the expedition sailed into the Victoria Strait before getting trapped in the ice off King William Island in September 1846. Franklin himself died on June 11, 1847, per a surviving note dated the following April. It’s believed that everyone else died while encamped for the winter, or while attempting to walk back to civilization.

There have been a number of studies examining the remains recovered from the graves and their vicinity on Beechey Island, as well as from King William Island. The current consensus is that pneumonia, tuberculosis, and a zinc deficiency contributed to the high death toll, along with hypothermia and starvation/malnutrition. There were even hints of cannibalism in the form of cut marks on human bones. Nobody successfully traversed the Northwest Passage until Roald Amundsen’s expedition from 1903 to 1906. Amundsen avoided Franklin’s doomed fate by traveling along the east coast of King William Island, rather than its west side.

The remains of the were discovered by Parks Canada in September 2014, just west of O’Reilly Island, with the help of a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). Almost exactly two years later, an Arctic Research Foundation team found the wreck of the , in Terror Bay, off the southern coast of King William Island, some 62 miles (100 km) from where historians had expected it to be. There had been rumors of sightings in the area, particularly from Inuit hunters, and one reported that he’d seen a mast jutting from the ice in that area a few years earlier. That proved to be the tip the foundation’s team needed; it took them just 2.5 hours to locate the .

Thanks to the cold temperature of the water, the lack of natural light, and the layers of silt covering many of the artifacts, the ship and its contents were in remarkably good condition. Even some of the windowpanes were still intact. Now Parks Canada has released fresh video footage and images from their first underwater exploration of the shipwreck. The underwater archaeology team conducted seven ROV dives and explored 20 cabins and compartments on the ship.

They captured footage not just of the exterior but also of the interior crew’s cabins and captain’s quarters. The team is especially excited about the latter location, since they expect to find preserved written documents, hopefully gleaning valuable information about the fate of the ship and her crew, along with details about their lives abroad the ship. They’ve already identified intact map cabinets, a tripod, and two thermometers. The only area they weren’t able to explore were the captain’s sleeping quarters.

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