A Canadian research team has solved one of the biggest mysteries in our country's history by finding one of the two lost ships from Sir John Franklin's doomed Arctic expedition.

"This is truly a historic moment for Canada," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement Tuesday. "Franklin's ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expedition, which took place nearly 170 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada's Arctic sovereignty."

The search team confirmed Sunday they found the wreck 11 metres below the surface of the water using a remote-operated underwater vehicle recently acquired by Parks Canada. The government doesn't know it the ship they located is HMS Erebus or HMS Terror.

John Geiger, chief executive officer of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, said the research team should be able to identify the ship in the coming days thanks to deck plans and known measurements of each vessel.

“This is something we’ve all dreamt of but we didn’t really, maybe in our heart, believe was possible. It turned out to be possible,” Geiger told CTV’s Chief News Anchor and Senior Editor Lisa LaFlamme Tuesday. 

Geiger said this weekend’s discovery will help answer a number of questions about the Franklin expeditions. It’s possible that some human remains are still on the vessel, or that written records and other important artifacts will be found, he said. 

“This is a storehouse of information about the expedition.”

In a statement, Queen Elizabeth II said she was “greatly interested to learn of the discovery of one of the long-lost ships of Captain Sir John Franklin.

“Prince Philip joins me in sending congratulations and good wishes to all those who played a part in this historic achievement,” she said.

Unravelling a historic mystery

Harper said Tuesday that finding the first ship will “no doubt provide the momentum -- or wind in our sails -- necessary to locate its sister ship and find out even more about what happened to the Franklin Expedition's crew.”

Geiger said it’s believed that the second ship was lost north of the location of Sunday’s discovery. He also said he thinks the discovered ship could be lifted to the surface and eventually restored.

Franklin, a Royal Navy officer and explorer, departed Greenhithe, England, with his crew in 1845 to traverse the last unnavigated sections of the Northwest Passage. He had already served on three previous Arctic expeditions.

The two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island and all 128 men aboard were lost. By 1848, the first search mission was sent to find the ships. By 1950, there were 11 British and two American ships involved in the search. Artifacts have been found over the decades, including a note found on King William Island in 1859 about the ship's fate. But until now there was no sign of either vessel.

"For more than a century, this has been a great Canadian story and mystery," said Harper. "I'd say it's been the subject of scientists and historians and writers and singers. So I think we have a really important day in mapping together the history of our country."

Harper has toured Canada's north annually and has made Arctic sovereignty a key issue since coming to power in 2006. Since 2008, Parks Canada has led six major searches. Harper got a first-hand look at some of the new technology being used in the search.

Geiger said modern technology and the amount of resources poured into the latest attempt to find the Franklin ships certainly made a difference.

"It ultimately isn't just about the story of discovery and mystery and all these things," the prime minister said last month. "It's also really laying the basis for what's, in the longer term, Canadian sovereignty."

However Rob Huebert, an Arctic expert at the University of Calgary, said it has more to do with nationalism than sovereignty.

"The discovery of the two historical wrecks from the 1840s that sailed under the authority of Britain before Canada was even a state doesn't really extend our claims of control over the waters of the Northwest Passage," Huebert said.

The ships appear to be remarkably well preserved in the frigid waters. A sonar image shows the deck relatively intact. Search team leader Ryan Harris believes the rest of the contents of the ship will also be in good condition.

With files The Canadian Press

The interactive map below shows known and likely location of the ships, 2008-2013 search areas and where artifacts, such as cutlery, were found. Zoom in and click on the icons to learn more: