Diver surveying the Investigator’s hull.
It is now more than 150 years following Miertsching’s Arctic adventure. There is far less talk of the formidable sea ice, as encountered by the Investigator, her Captain, and his men. And while politicians, scientists, and experts today debate climate change in the media, (some questioning its very existence, or whether or not the speed and consequences of the now galloping melt are in any way attributable to human activities), sound scientific data and anecdotal evidence provided by Inuit confirms that the Arctic permafrost is in full retreat and the once expansive polar ice cap
is continuing to shrink at an alarming rate, threatening long-established infrastructure and the very existence of the Arctic’s coastal communities.
It’s the summer of 2010 and there’s no ice
The number of ships that made their way through the Canadian Northwest Passage in 2010 numbered double over the seagoing traffic the year before. Seems that the many cruise ship experiences offered today and for paddlers in canoes and kayaks and small vessel sailors seeking new experiences, the Northwest Passage is at once transformed from it previous dream status, to suddenly become one of the world’s newest, accessible and exotic playgrounds for the curious and adventurous.
For icebreakers and commercial shipping, the obvious dual benefits of easier to navigate ice conditions and greatly shortened shipping lanes have great appeal. Globally, governments, large international corporations, private investors and indigenous stakeholders alike are grappling in tandem, and, on occasion, with each other, over the hard questions of how to harness and best distribute the vast economic potential laid bare by the retreat of Arctic ice.
The Investigator and McClure’s Depot
In July of 2010, Parks Canada sent a team from its Underwater Archaeology Service to Mercy Bay (now part of Aulavik National Park) to the very site where the Investigator was permanently trapped in the ice. There are no trees or shrubs on Banks Island. Its sandy soil is instead bestrewn with rocks and boulders.
After nine months of winter with temperatures dipping consistently below -40C, there are but sparse lowland outcroppings of saxifrage, mountain avens, wintergreen, moss campion, grasses and reindeer moss that are able to flourish in the otherwise barren landscape. And, despite the 24-hour sunlight, daytime temperatures rarely manage to climb much above +12C, limiting the window provided the Arctic field team to do its work. Their focus, however, is firmly fixed on finding the “HMS Investigator and exploring an area possibly holding artefacts and other unknown secrets at the site of Captain McClure’s depot.”
Now more than a century and a half after she was abandoned, the Canadian archaeologists begin their search for the sunken wreck. The bay is covered in ice and the team busies itself with all that can be discovered on land. What is known is that sometime after 1853, Inuit had come upon McClure’s cache (left behind on Banks Island) and made use of the supplies, materials, and the tools they found. Still, the researchers manage to locate rusted tins, remnants of hardwood containers and boxes, a yard truss and a good supply of coal. They also come across the gravesites of the three sailors who died just before the rescue of 1853.
Just three days after the 2010 arrival of the archaeologists, the sea ice opens up. It is unexpected. A zodiac is launched immediately, and the serious search for the sunken ship begins. It is then that the nearly inconceivable occurs: barely a quarter of an hour after its launch, the team’s side scan sonar shows the Investigator on the laptop screen of team-member Ryan Harris.
Clearly visible to the naked eye in the sunlight-illuminated waters, they are able to see the well-defined contours of the ship’s hull. With Investigator lying only eight metres under the surface, her individual planks are easily discernible. A more comprehensive sonar scan of the hull shows the ship to be in very good condition and subsequent diving surveys using a submersible remote control video camera produces remarkably clear images of the wreck. In the summer of 2011 the team came back for a follow-up survey.
All in all, in two short summertime windows of opportunity comprised of only a few weeks each, over 100 dives were performed by the Parks Canada team.
The discovery of the Investigator after more than 150 years was a remarkable achievement, one that created a media sensation in Canada and Great Britain. Beyond the kudos, the historical information gained and the artefacts harvested, this find is seen by some as having geo-political significance — one that clearly underscores, and, some might say, substantiates, in very real and tangible terms, Canada’s claims of sovereignty over the offshore lands and waters that comprise the Arctic Archipelago.
Special thanks to Garry Enns, Parks Canada, for his translation of Mechtild Opel’s original in-German manuscript.