W5: Search for HMS Investigator reveals secrets
Published Saturday, October 22, 2011 10:57PM EDT
As I soared through the sky, in the back of pilot Jake Kaufman's helicopter, trailing a herd of wild muskox I thought to myself, "Well, I'll never do this again." Not that it wasn't fun. It was exhilarating, but even though the scenery and wildlife are breathtaking, it's unlikely I'll ever return to Mercy Bay on Banks Island, North West Territories. It's simply too remote.
High above the Arctic Circle, Mercy Bay is more than 800 kilometers north of Inuvik. For most of the year the barren tundra is covered with snow while the water is locked with ice. It's virtually uninhabitable, but for the past 160 years it has been home to a ship, HMS Investigator.
Investigator was the reason I had come to Mercy Bay. I was accompanying a team of Parks Canada underwater archeologists who were hoping to be the first ones to visit Investigator in more than a century and a half.
"For us, having a site like this, it's an archeologist's dream," said Marc-Andre Bernier, chief of Parks Canada's underwater archeology service.
Investigator was a British Navy vessel dispatched in 1850 to search for the legendary explorer Sir John Franklin. Franklin, and two ships under his command, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had gone missing while in search of the elusive North West Passage. Investigator's Captain, Robert McClure, never did find Franklin but he and his crew were credited with discovering the North West Passage themselves. That discovery, however, would come at a tremendous cost.
Investigator got stuck in the ice in Mercy Bay and would never leave. As for the crew, they endured two punishing years with very little food and rampant illness as the temperatures fell as low as minus 54 degrees Celsius. Many men suffered from scurvy and three of the 66 sailors died. Finally, in April, 1853 the surviving members of Investigator were rescued by yet another British ship, HMS Resolute. Investigator was abandoned and left to sink to the bottom of the Beaufort Sea where it has remained ever since.
In August 2010, the Parks Canada team set out to find Investigator. Shortly after arriving in Mercy Bay they located the ship using side-scan sonar and a remote operating vehicle.
"It's quite amazing it's still sitting there, bolt upright on the sea floor," said senior underwater archeologist Ryan Harris.
After locating the ship in 2010, Harris, Bernier and the rest of an eleven member research team returned to Mercy Bay in July 2011. This time their goal was to dive to the ship. Although the team members have undertaken thousands of dives in Canadian and international waters, none of them had ever seen a ship like Investigator before, nor had they taken part in a dive in a location this remote.
"It's really just a one-of-a-kind shipwreck in the world" said Harris.
Once the divers reached the underwater site Investigator didn't disappoint.
"To encounter this wreck, this stately, stately Royal Navy vessel standing proud on the sea floor and just the incredible destruction that you could see caused by the ice and yet this ship still endures relatively intact," said Harris. "It was a truly surreal experience to come across a wreck site of this exceptional nature, in this incredibly remote location. It's something I'll never forget."