A Visit to the HMS Erebus
The Northwest Passage Day 4
“I think over again my small adventures, my fears. These small ones that seemed so big. For all the vital things I had to get to and reach. And yet there is only one great thing, the only thing to live to see the great day that dawns, and the light that fills the world.” - Inuit Song (unknown)
The Back Story
For centuries, men searched for a shipping route from Europe through the Arctic waters to Asia. It wasn’t until 1906 that someone made the complete passage. Roald Amundson, in his ship Gjøa, navigated successfully using a route that took him through Rae Strait. The stories of the quest for a passage are riveting. Perhaps the most famous of all is that of Sir John Franklin, who set sail in 1845 with two very well provisioned ships. Franklin and his men never returned. Search expeditions were unsuccessful. Explorer John Rae was the first to discover significant artifacts from Franklin’s expedition and to learn about the crew’s fate from the Inuit who lived in the area. Piecing together the clues from various sources—notes, artifacts found on land, three bodies buried on Beechy island, accounts from the Inuit—we know that Franklin’s ships became bound by ice in 1846 near King William Island. He died in 1847 and Captain Crozier assumed command. In 1848, the crew abandoned the ships and attempted crossing the tundra by sledge. It is likely that the men died because of scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, and extreme weather. John Rae had evidence that some men had turned to cannibalism although the British refused to believe it at the time. That evidence is now irrefutable. What of the ships? They were assumed sunk, but the question was where? They weren’t in the area where they were ice locked. The HMS Erebus was found in September 2014 in Queen Maud Gulf. The HMS Terror was found in September 2016, in a location north of the Erebus. In both cases, stories passed down by local Inuit helped to pinpoint the location of the wrecks.
Parks Canada manages the sites jointly with the Inuit. Underwater archeologists found the wrecks to be in excellent condition, filled with artifacts. Last evening, they brought reproductions of many of the artifacts and showed us video footage and photos of recent discoveries—infomation that had not yet been released. This is the china used on the ship.
Each site is off limits to the public and boats must keep out of the protected area around the sites. Inuit Guardians camp out on land close to the sites to keep watch. Parks Canada arranged to test a public experience with passengers from the Ocean Endeavour. This would be the sixth attempt in three years. The others were all scrubbed due to weather. Despite some windy weather and ocean chop, this day looked to be one of success. The plan was for us to visit the Inuit Guardian camp, the research barge Qiniqtiryuaq, and the RV David Thompson research ship. My group would be the second to go. We would travel in Zodiacs. Shortly after the first group departed, we were told that the visit to the Inuit Guardian camp was cancelled due to wind and high wave action on shore. The Zodiac drivers couldn’t ensure a safe landing. Instead, the Inuit Guardians (a heartier bunch than us passengers) would come to the ship for the day and give presentations about their role. The good news was that the barge and research ship visits were still on, although we were cautioned about the tricky transfer from Zodiac to vessel.
We headed to the Mud Room, suited up, and disembarked onto the Zodiacs. It was windy and a bit choppy.
Out on the horizon we could see two tiny vessels. The one on the left is the research barge and the other one is the research ship.
The R.V. David Thompson is about the same length as the HMS Erebus. The Erebus was home to 129. I believe the captain of the Thompson said there were 15 people on board his ship. The sailors on the Erebus must have been cramped.
When we approached the David Thompson, I saw a rope ladder and immediately realized this would NOT be the way to embark. Fortunately I was tall enough to scooch my butt up on to the deck. Others had to be dragged and lifted.
Our first stop was the dining area to see all the high tech toys used by the scientists. These are some of the cameras they use. The one on the left is for high quality video for use in documentaries. The contraption on the right is a drone. The smaller camera in the back is what they use to fit in tight spaces where they can’t go. They also showed us an ROV and a quick-and-dirty sonar-like imaging device which they use to scout an area. If they find something, they then use a slow, high quality scanning device.
We then went upstairs to meet the captain and the scanning engineer. Both had been on the project for years and recalled the excitement of seeing an image finally form of the wreck. It was a tight space, but we got to see the scanning workstation and images of the HMS Erebus.
We disembarked and sped across the water to the research barge. It seemed a bit wavier but our driver did a good job positioning the Zodiac without getting it stuck under the barge. By this time, everyone realized rope ladders were sheer folly and that the scooch method was best for those tall enough. Otherwise, the men on the barge would pull up the passenger.
The barge had three main areas, each one made from a shipping container. One was an archeology lab where they catalog artifacts and start the desalination process in an effort to preserve the objects. We were shown all the new finds for the day, but were not allowed to photograph them as the information was still confidential. We saw a boot, a bottle, and a metal object yet to be identified. Another container housed an air compressor and a warm water circulator. These were to make diving for extended periods comfortable. Rather than carry tanks of air and wear a wet suit, a diver breathes air sent through a hose and wears a warm suit. The warm suit is an underwater garment through which warm water is circulated continuously. The scientists claim is it like being in a spa. Unfortunately for today’s diver, they turned off the circulator due to noise. They needed the relative quiet to conduct the tour for us.
The third container is the dive monitoring team. They watch and communicate with the research diver.
Scientists consult a map of the HMS Erebus to get grid numbers that are used to catalogue any finds.
A series of tubes are connected to the diver—air to breathe, exhaled air, warm water, camera, light, and communication. The diver uses an underwater pencil to make notes. This diver had to come up to get another pencil while we were there.
Surfacing for a Pencil
The barge was so fascinating that it was difficult for me to leave. But with 164 passenges, all wanting to experience the HMS Erebus, our time was limited. The tours continued throughout the day. In the evening Parks Canada and one of the archeologists gave another presentation. I really appreciate that the research scientists gave up a day of research for the sake of science communication. Their research season is never longer than 6 weeks and can be much shorter due to weather. Last week, the wind was so bad that they had to tow the barge to calmer waters, postponing some of their work. Before the ice forms, they close up the barge and move it to a safe winter location. They take the R.V. David Thompson to southern Canada where the team can access it easily from their lab in Ottawa. One year they were unable to move the vessel south due to early ice. Everyone—Parks Canada Rangers, Inuit Guardians, Adventure Canada staff, research scientists, and passengers—felt the day was a resounding success. I could almost hear a collective sigh of relief when the last passenger climbed aboard. No one had fallen into the water. No one had tripped over the dive cables or knocked into the artifacts. No one had dropped anything off the Zodiac onto the wreck. It was an amazing day!