Solving the mystery of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition

February 3, 2015

It’s in our nature to solve puzzles.

And the mystery of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition is perhaps the greatest national puzzle of our time.

This comment came from the audience at CIGI’s Signature Lecture Discovering the Erebus: Mysteries of the Franklin Voyage Revealed, an opportunity to hear first-hand about the discovery announced on October 1, 2014. Two experts directly involved in the search for Sir John Franklin’s two long-lost ships spoke about their experience and what it means — personally and for our country — to have found one of the missing pieces: the HMS Erebus.

It’s like finding a time capsule that can take us back 169 years, said Marc-André Bernier, chief of underwater archaeology sciences at Parks Canada. We have the opportunity to reopen a story that we’ve been trying to understand for so many years.

For those unfamiliar with the story, “on May 19, 1845, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror of the Royal Navy departed Greenhithe, England, on a much-heralded Arctic expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. Under the command of Sir John Franklin, with Captain Francis Rawdon Crozier second in command, the expedition’s two ships set out with a total complement of 129 officers and men. The two expedition ships were last seen entering Baffin Bay in August 1845.” (

We can’t underestimate how important our history is, said Bernier. The Franklin Expedition is a story that resonates with Canadians and it’s a tremendous opportunity to get people interested in the Arctic. It’s about culture, the maritimes, the Inuit and British. It’s about mapping and charting the North. It’s a tragedy and a mystery about human resilience. It’s what we are, he explained.

In his remarks, Bernier discussed the role of local Inuit knowledge and the oral tradition in helping find the HMS Erebus, as well as the role of the Arctic Research Foundation (AFR) — and how its partnership with Parks Canada was a catalyst for additional collaboration.

Partnerships are successful when everyone plays to their strengths, said Adrian Schimnowski, operations director for the not-for-profit ARF. He joined Bernier as a keynote speaker during the Signature Lecture. His on-screen image of ARF’s Martin Bergmann research vessel, being overshadowed by the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, highlighted the various partners and roles required to accomplish such an extensive archeological expedition.

Schimnowski spoke of the beauty and harshness of the Arctic. While searching for Franklin, his crew would operate 24/7 when the weather was good, charting the sea and conducting trials. You become part of the environment, whether you like it or not, when you’re in the Arctic, he explained. His crew was put through sleet, rain, snow and extremely high winds on the open water. You couldn’t help but think about the Franklin crew — what they were thinking and feeling 169 years ago, he said.

There is great success in failure, Schimnowski said. This experience — the story of the Franklin Expedition and finding the HMS Erebus — is about human nature, the need to discover and push the limits. Why we fail as a people, and understanding how we can learn from our failure, is an important lesson. Bernier, who spoke of his eagerness to discover what might be preserved onboard the submerged Erebus, said archeology is just another way of learning about our past. An important consideration is what this discovery means for our future.

Watch Discovering the Erebus: Mysteries of the Franklin Voyage Revealed, in its unedited entirety, at

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

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