Sometimes you just happen to be in the right place at the right time. In early September 2019, photographer Mike Beedell and I were travelling as resource staff on an Adventure Canada expedition ship, sailing from Kugluktuk, Nunavut, eastward through the Northwest Passage. For the third year in a row, Adventure Canada was attempting to visit the wreck-site of the HMS Erebus. In previous years, weather and ice had conspired against them, just as conditions had been consistently unfavourable for the Parks Canada underwater archaeologists working at the site. This time, the forces of Nature cooperated. On September 5, 2019, the Adventure Canada passengers became the first ever “tourists” to visit the Erebus. One Zodiac (with approximately 10 passengers) at a time nudged up gently against the Parks Canada barge, moored directly overhead the wreck lying below on the seabed, the deck of the Erebus only four or five metres below the surface of the water. Not only were they the first guests to visit this historic site, they did so while the archaeological work was underway.
We gathered around Marc André Bernier, Chief Underwater Archaeologist for Parks Canada, who welcomed us to the dive site. He explained how his team worked, slowly examining the detailed clues contained within the wreck. While the diver explored below us, we could watch the video screen showing close-ups of the wreck transmitted from the helmet-mounted camera worn by the diver. It felt almost as if we were down there with her. As she worked, Bernier pointed out on a wall-chart of the shipwreck where the diver was, which hole in the ship’s side she was reaching through at that moment.
The process of creating the detailed map of the ship is a technological marvel. It was done with computer software that was not available just a few years ago, according to Bernier. The drawing previously would have been done by hand. Perhaps, he muses, we are well served by the passage of time since the ships were lost during a quest for the Northwest Passage.
That elapsed time is just shy of 175 years. HMS Erebus, along with HMS Terror, departed England in May of 1845, and spent the next winter in a small natural harbour at Beechey Island, a location which has become something of a mecca for Arctic history buffs. From there the ships sailed south, into the unknown, and became locked in ice off the northwestern shore of King William Island. How and when the ships moved from that location to the sites of their recent discoveries are among the many questions researchers now hope to answer.
On board our ship, a modern ice-reinforced platform which carries tourists safely through the Northwest Passage, we had a remarkable link to this history. Perhaps, in the manner of the “universe unfolding as it should,” this is why it was this trip which succeeded for the first time in delivering guests to the wreck-site of Erebus. Notably, with us on the Adventure Canada resource staff was Lois Suluk, from Arviat. She is a direct descendant (at least a great-great-great-grandchild) of William Ulibbaq (aka Maqqu), the man who travelled with, and guided, John Rae in 1854. It was Maqqu who contacted Inuit in the region of Pelly Bay, and learned from them the first pieces of Inuit oral testimony which ultimately provided irrefutable evidence as to what had happened to the ships and their men.
Now, all these years later, the slow and methodical process of unravelling the ships’ secrets has begun, one clue at a time. As one of the eight divers at the project returned to the surface, the first thing she did was pass to waiting hands the bag containing a new artifact just discovered, mapped and photographed in place, and then removed.
In the lab on board the barge, an array of tub-trays along the counter contained the last week’s collection. The visitors looked on in awe, almost disbelief, at what they witnessed, knowing how privileged they were just to be there. One of the divers explained a few of the artifacts:
- An entirely intact bottle that contained a cork when they found it, so the contents were preserved for analysis.
- A beautifully worked and decorated wooden handle, found in one of the junior officer’s cabins, with a block of sealing wax nearby, which leads to speculation that it is the handle of the officer’s seal, used for personal letters. The divers hope to find the metal piece from the end of the handle, which would probably have the officer’s initials.
- The sole of a boot — potential DNA evidence.
- A glass decanter found in an officer’s cabin, probably his personal supply of a favourite tipple.
- A pair of silver sugar tongs.
The conservation and analysis of the artifacts recovered from the ship is also a much more advanced process than it would have been just 20 years ago. As a result, a more complete picture of what happened in Erebus and Terror will one day soon be revealed.
Standing on the barge above the wreck, feeling so close to history despite the span of many years, we listened as Bernier explained where the divers were working to “excavate” the artifacts, while he pointed at the computer-enhanced drawing of the Erebus. He admits it is an unprecedented experience. Two ships that have been lying on the bottom of the Arctic Ocean for nearly 175 years, rich with artifacts, representing the most compelling mystery of Arctic exploration — “It’s a lot of work, and it’s incredibly exciting,” says Bernier. “Every day is an adventure. We don’t know what we’re going to find, but the thing we do know is that we’re going to see something new and discover new things.
“The first question is: How did the ship get here? By itself? With the ice? Or did some of the men go back to the ships and sail the ships south?” If so, they probably sailed together into Terror Bay, where the wreck of HMS Terror now lies. The Erebus is directly south of that site, suggesting perhaps it was later blown south and trapped there. Myriad questions will all be answered in due course. The archaeologists will discover what, if any, food was left on board, what sort of activities the men were engaged in, what was the state of their equipment, and many more clues to answer these and thousands of other questions.
Marc André Bernier says, “My colleagues all around the world are jealous!” He modestly acknowledges there are lots of questions to answer and sums it up as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for an archaeologist.” Surely it is beyond that.
But the 200-odd guests from Adventure Canada would agree that this day was, for them, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, participating in a genuinely historic moment.
David F. Pelly and Mike Beedell are long-time contributors to above&beyond Magazine, who have also served as resource staff on Adventure Canada trips for many years.
Adventure Canada was selected by Parks Canada as the partner responsible to deliver the first visitors to the National Historic Site at the wreck of HMS Erebus.