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Franklin ship searchers recall 'Stanley Cup' moment of their discovery

09/11/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 11/10/2014 05:59 EST
Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq got the email at 10:30 on Sunday night.

"It didn't seem real at all," she said, recalling the message Tuesday on CBC News Network's Power & Politics.

One of Sir John Franklin's doomed ships had been found.

The picture she received of the wreck and the map showing its final resting place in Queen Maud Gulf made the discovery much more real.

"Seeing that map, I was ecstatic because it was an area that Inuit have said for many, many years is where the ship sank," she said.

The rest of the country got the news Tuesday morning.

But the drama began a full week before that.

Brutal and dangerous ice conditions had pushed the four ships in this year's search party from their northern survey area in Victoria Strait to a southern area they last covered in 2008.

The team decided to begin its investigation there by walking the coastline of an island near the spot that Inuit oral history for decades had maintained an abandoned ship had been seen adrift in moving ice.

On Sept. 1, helicopter pilot Andrew Stirling was wandering that shore when he came upon what looked like a giant tuning fork hidden behind a rock. He called over Douglas Stenton, an archeologist and Nunavut's director of heritage, who confirmed it was from a Royal Navy ship — possibly one of Franklin's.

From the discovery spot on shore, the search moved to the sea and a phase called "mowing the lawn." The little survey ship Investigator dragged a sonar unit behind it back and forth in a pattern of parallel lines 150 metres apart.

They didn't have to drag the sonic lawn mower for long before something came up on Park Canada archeologist Ryan Harris's monitor.

"The wreck of one of Franklin's ships scrolled down the screen and I don't think it was even halfway onto the monitor when I shouted out, 'That's it, that's it!" recounted Harris during a briefing Wednesday at Parks Canada's headquarters in Ottawa.

"I asked Ryan what his feelings were," remembered Harris's Parks Canada colleague Jonathan Moore. "He said it was like winning the Stanley Cup."

"Of course, the Stanley Cup is awarded every year," quipped Harris in response.

Ship's communications cut

That sonar image, though, was not proof positive. Parks Canada had a protocol for identification and this was just the first step.

Next was to get back to the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier. At that point, Parks Canada team leader Marc-Andre Bernier was brought from the One Ocean vessel to the Laurier. 

Then, the Laurier's communications with the outside world were cut off. 

"It's not that hard on a ship like this in the Arctic," explained Capt. Bill Noon. 

This was all done to protect the exact location of the wreck.

"I tell you, I'll never play poker with a Parks Canada employee, because they held it from me for a while," said Noon — "it" being the discovery of the century.

Once the executive staff were agreed they had something important, they needed final confirmation.

That's when they deployed the remotely operated underwater vehicle. The suitcase-sized sub is equipped with a camera and tethered to a small boat that went back to the watery grave site.

"Yes. We can say that we do have one of the two Franklin vessels," said Bernier on Sept. 7, sometime between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. eastern time.

And within an hour and a half, Minister Aglukkak had her email.

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