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2019 Issue 3

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Finding Franklin's ship

Finding Franklin's ship

This September, HMS Erebus, one of the lost ships of the doomed 1845 Franklin Expedition, was found in the eastern end of the Queen Maud Gulf, Nunavut. A number of people with Queen’s connections were part of the historic find.

The underwater archaeologists

  • Jonathan Moore, Artsci’91 (Classical Studies)
  • Filippo Ronca, Artsci'92 (Classical Studies)

Since 2008, Jonathan Moore has been searching for the Franklin ships with his Parks Canada colleagues. In early September, Jonathan was one of the first to spot the ship lying on the sea floor of the Queen Maud Gulf. It was his sixth trip with Parks Canada since 2008; each mission charted more territory, gathered data and narrowed down the search area.

The wider area in which the Erebus lay had been partly searched before, but was still “off the beaten path” even in Arctic terms. “Much of the area was uncharted,” says Jonathan. In 2008 he and his colleagues first surveyed an access corridor (“a 65-km road underwater, so to speak,” says Jonathan) in order to navigate shoals and shallow water. Only then could they safely utilize, year after year, side-scan sonars that could detect objects in the water below them.

[photo of a side-scan sonar image of HMS Erebus]A side-scan sonar image of Franklin's ship on the day of its discovery.
Photo credit: Parks Canada

“It was truly incredible,” he says of the moment he and his teammates saw the image of the shipwreck scroll across the sonar screen. “There were high-fives all around. We felt sheer joy and relief!”

Team members flew to Ottawa to make the announcement of the find with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. But there was much more work to be done. Jonathan says, “We flew back almost immediately with more dive gear and with Filippo [They spent two days diving to explore the wreck, gathering evidence of its identity.

By September 30, the team had confirmed it: they had found HMS Erebus.

[photo of Filippo Ronca]Astern of the wreck, Filippo Ronca measures the muzzle bore diameter of one of two cannons found on the site, serving to identify this gun as a brass 6-pounder.Pic credit: Thierry Boyer, Parks Canada

Although Parks Canada was the lead in this expedition, Jonathan stresses that this was a team effort on a massive scale. Government partners included the Canadian Coast Guard, Canadian Hydrographic Service and the Government of Nunavut, among others. Non-government partners included the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Arctic Research Foundation, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, Shell Canada and One Ocean Expeditions.

The explorer

  • Andrew Prossin, Artsci’91

Andrew is the owner of One Ocean Expeditions, a polar cruise operator in the Arctic and Antarctic. Andrew’s ship, One Ocean Voyager, carried equipment, including a new autonomous underwater vehicle, for the expedition.

The Voyager also carried special guests, including scientists sponsored by the Weston Foundation. Among them were:

  • Queen’s professor John Smol, an international authority in the field of Arctic limnology and paleolimnology;
  • Joshua Thienpont (Artsci’07, PhD’13), now a postdoctoral fellow at Brock and a specialist in northern aquatic ecosystems;
  • and Emily Choy (Artsci’05, Ed’06), a PhD candidate in Biological Sciences at the University of Manitoba, where her research focuses on beluga whales.

The travellers on the Voyager were treated to lectures by the guest scientists, as well as by the archaeologists and robotics crew. “It created a unique learning environment,” says Andrew, who hopes to replicate the model of bringing together sponsors, scientists and students for his company’s future trips. “It’s a dream of mine to use our ships in support of science.”

[Queen's Alumni Review 2014 issue 4 cover]