More than 160 years ago, Sir John Franklin sailed into his Arctic prison, with the comforting conceit that technology would ensure his escape.
Franklin's vessels, the Erebus and the Terror, were outfitted with steam engines, desalinators, iron plates over their wooden hulls, and propellers and rudders that could be retracted to prevent ice damage.
Something about that tragic hubris and my own sense of what those punishing years must have been like drew me to the story decades ago. I lived in the Arctic in the 1980s and '90s and experienced first hand how capricious and callous the environment can be.
Among my books is a fragile first edition of Francis Leopold McClintock's account of his search for Franklin, which includes a faithful reproduction of the only written message left by the crew before they perished.
On a pilgrimage to desolate Beechey Island, I stood over the graves of the first of Franklin's sailors to die. On that remote rocky shore I relied on my down parka, a rifle slung over my shoulder to protect against polar bears, and the certainty of a hot meal at the end of the day.
The best engineering of the day failed Franklin and his men. But there are hopes that, with the launch last week of the largest search yet for the lost ships of Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, high-tech equipment may find the final resting place of their vessels.
On another pilgrimage, I recently found myself in a warehouse in Saanich on Vancouver Island, staring at what looks like a torpedo — a banana-yellow torpedo about four metres long. Researchers have aptly dubbed it "Mano," Hawaiian for shark.
Prof. Colin Bradley at the University of Victoria's Ocean Technology Lab walks me through its capabilities.
"It can travel through the water at a number of depths," he says. "It can carry a suite of sensors that can measure ocean chemistry such as salinity, conductivity."
And ocean science is primarily why the lab bought the robotic device a few years ago from its American manufacturer, for close to a million dollars. But Bradley says Parks Canada came calling because with its onboard computer and GPS and satellite receivers, Mano is fully autonomous and can be outfitted with a sonar system.
"The one we have can map objects down to a few centimetres in size depending on the depth the vehicle is flying at," Bradley says. "This gives you an amazing ability to map the sea floor over a fairly wide swath beneath the vehicle."
Two years ago a traditional sonar device, towed behind a boat, led to the discovery of one of the search vessels that sank while in pursuit of the lost Franklin expedition. Ryan Harris, senior marine archeologist with Parks Canada was the first to see the ghostly outline of the HMS Investigator.
"It was difficult for the sonar to actually image the wreck site itself," Harris told me as he did his final packing for this year's expedition. "We had to do several passes over several hours, ultimately waiting for the ice to drift out of the way before we were able to return compelling images of the Investigator site. "
The Mano, known as an AUV — Autonomous Underwater Vehicle — will travel on its own, systematically mapping the ocean floor, no matter what surface conditions plague the scientists.
"An AUV can essentially dive right below the bad weather and prowl over the sea floor at a predetermined altitude, following its planned survey lines very very closely. So that's really what we're hoping for is to increase our window of opportunity to acquire data," Harris says.
Flies solo up to 12 hours
But there's a catch. Unlike traditional towed sonar, which immediately relays an image to the operator, Mano flies solo for up to 12 hours at a time, storing its sonar map in its onboard computer. It's only at the end of the day that researchers can download it, and begin to look for tell-tale signs of one of Franklin's ships.
Harris is hopeful.
"We're optimistic it's going to be a very useful tool, in our arsenal," he says. "That said, technology can deliver many capabilities, and it's also somewhat vulnerable to malfunction and that's just the nature of the business and what it's like to work in an unforgiving environment like the Arctic. But I have every confidence in the University of Victoria and the confidence they bring to the table."
On the day I walked into the Saanich warehouse, Mano stubbornly refused to submit to a demonstration of its directional propeller. After some puzzling, its human handlers wheeled the robot out into the parking lot where it could get a GPS fix and it became co-operative.
James Markes said he isn't concerned about the additional challenges of working in the Arctic. The University of Victoria graduate is part of Mano's pit crew that will raise and lower the robot into the ocean, track its progress, and keep its batteries charged.
"I mean if we find it that will be absolutely immense, right?" he says, beaming about the possibility of discovering one of the Franklin wrecks. "To find something people have been looking for for 150 years, if I can be remotely part of the team, or even be on the boat when we collect that data, and find it, that would be thrill of a lifetime."
Markes' interest was piqued just a few weeks ago, when he was asked if he wanted to be part of the expedition.
"First day on the job … Wikipedia, Sir Franklin. What's this about?" he admits. "What's the significance, what's the meaning? And it all unfolded from there."
Discovery would be 'phenomenal'
Bradley said finding the vessels will be deeply significant to Canada and Great Britain.
"And to me to think about the mid-1800s sailors getting on these vessels and saying goodbye to their families, knowing they were going to be away for several years, in these tiny little vessels, heading off into the unknown ... it's really akin to a space shuttle trip today. It is an amazing story and to be able to be part of a team that wraps that up that brings the story to a conclusion is going to be phenomenal."
But the area where researchers will be focused this year is a vast swath of ocean, hundreds of square kilometres west of King William island.
Ryan Harris of Parks Canada says predicting success would diminish the scope of the challenge. It's not certain where the ships drifted after Franklin's men, desperate and mad, deserted them.
There's no doubt about the real prize the search is after, but Mano will, if nothing else, help archeologists cross areas off the map, narrowing the search area for next year. And as an added benefit, the high-tech sonar soundings of the sea bed will fill in the blanks on navigation charts.
And while the technology of their day failed Franklin's men, searchers are putting their faith in the technology of today to help solve the mystery of the missing ships.