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Franklin ship dive 'like going back in time' for archeologist

02/03/2015 12:34 EST | Updated 04/04/2015 05:59 EDT
When Sir John Franklin sailed off on his doomed mission in 1845, he was given two ships and three years’ worth of supplies to lead what was considered the ultimate expedition in finding the Northwest Passage.

The discovery of one of his sunken ships, HMS Erebus, in the Arctic seabed last September ended up being the ultimate expedition for Marc-André Bernier, chief of underwater archeology sciences at Parks Canada.

"I had the privilege of seeing the shipwreck first-hand. It was extraordinary," said Bernier, in an interview with CBC’s Colin Butler on The Morning Edition. "Definitely one of the highlights of my diving career, and I’ve been doing this for 25 years."

During the dive, Bernier remembers seeing two bronze cannons and a lone cable lying on the seafloor.

"When you dive on the shipwreck you can feel that abandonment. You basically have the feeling of walking on the scene of something highly dramatic, and you can see objects that were there and hadn’t moved for more than 150 years. So it’s basically like going back in time."

Bernier, who made two dives to see the shipwreck as part of the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition, will be telling his story Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET at a free lecture for the Centre for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo, Ont. The lecture will be live streamed on this page at 7 p.m.

The disappearance of Franklin and his ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, has been a mystery for 160 years, one that the British Royal Navy began investigating in the years after Franklin’s departure. In the late 1850s, a British expedition discovered a note left by the crew saying that Franklin had died in 1847 and that the ships were abandoned in 1848.

Franklin’s crew is believed to have perished while trying to survive on foot.

'Pivotal' moment in Canadian history

The mystery of what happened on the Franklin Expedition is far from solved, but Bernier hopes to find clues aboard HMS Erebus.

"To be honest, we can expect to find just about anything, because of the cold water that gives fantastic preservation, we wouldn’t be surprised to find documents," said Bernier.

Among the questions that remain, Bernier is curious to find out whether a crew reboarded HMS Erebus after its abandonment.

"Inuit accounts tell us that they have seen traces or indications that that ship in particular had been re-manned and that a small number of men had re-embarked," said Bernier.

"There’s also the question of, what was the state of the expedition at the time of abandonment? We know that 1847, the note says everything was good … and less than a year later 19 men had died, Franklin had died and they had to abandon the safety of their ships. So what happened in between?"

The missing wrecks were declared a national historic site in 1992, and Bernier says the ships represent a "pivotal" moment in Canadian history.

"It’s a story about the Europeans trying to map, conquer the Arctic. Obviously, the Inuit had been there for centuries before, but it was about the science of mapping and understanding the Arctic from the European perspective," said Bernier.

"It’s [also] that period where it’s the contact between two cultures. The Inuit and the British were getting to know each other and sometimes meeting for the first time."

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