Despite bad weather that has hampered some of their plans, the journey has been a productive one so far, says the chief of underwater archaeology for Parks Canada, and it should get even better with the addition of an automated underwater vehicle from the University of Victoria.
"Work is going well... (but) we haven't found the ships yet," Marc-Andre Bernier said in a telephone interview after leaving the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier last week.
What they have found in a search on land are more artifacts from the ill-fated expedition. At Erebus Bay, where at least a dozen members of the Franklin crew are known to have died, more human remains have been recovered.
"They did find a human tooth, and some bone and a toothbrush," Bernier said. "These were really exciting finds."
Sir John Franklin set out from England on May 19, 1845, on a mission to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic. He had two Royal Navy ships — the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror — a crew of 135, and provisions for what was expected to be a three-year journey.
In August 1845, two European whaling ships had a chance meeting with the Franklin Expedition as they waited to cross Baffin Bay to Lancaster Sound. That would be their last contact with the outside world.
In 1859, a search party hired by Lady Jane Franklin found a message left in a cairn on Victory Point, King William Island. The ships had become trapped in the ice in Victoria Strait in late 1846, and remained there for a year and a half.
The message said Sir John Franklin died on June 11, 1847, and by the following spring another 24 members of the crew had perished. In April 1848 the rest of the crew left a note saying they were to set out on foot, for a destination they would never reach.
There have been many efforts to find the lost ships, to no avail.
The 2012 Expedition being led by Parks Canada is a continuation of surveys conducted in 2008, 2010 and 2011.
Bad weather in recent days has hampered this year's search somewhat, but the addition of the automated underwater vehicle from the University of Victoria will help, Bernier said.
"Because of the nature of the environment, they had to do a lot of testing. That testing is done so it's ready to join in the search," he said Friday. "We're in full operation now, and things are going well."
Dr. Colin Bradley, director of the University of Victoria's Ocean Technology Lab, said the torpedo-shaped robotic vehicle is equipped with downward-looking sonar to map the sea floor and detect anything of archeological interest. At about the half-way point, things are going well, he said.
"From time to time we've had to pull the vessel in because the weather's been very rough," he said. "It's been an interesting couple of weeks."
The high-tech equipment has had to be adapted to the realities of the Arctic.
"There've been some minor problems but nothing that has halted progress, so we're very happy about that," Bradley said.
"The team has to be resourceful and creative in dealing with problems and it is a bit of high-technology. For anybody who owns a computer and software, you know that they fail, they crash. This vehicle has several computers on board and sophisticated data acquisition systems and sensors, so all of this has to be integrated and managed and the potential for bugs obviously increases with the higher levels of sophistication.
Whether or not the ships are found, there is a lot of progress being made in mapping the sea floor in that region — an important task of the expedition, he said.
"As we know, unfortunately, with the variability and the changing of the climate in the North, the ice coverage seems to be diminishing which means that there are more areas becoming exposed that are uncharted," Bradley said. "And with more vessels being used in the North, the requirement to map the sea floor becomes even greater.
The Sir Wilfrid Laurier is expected to continue with the search until the middle of this week, while the Martin Bergmann, a research vessel belonging to the private, non-profit Arctic Research Foundation, will continue.
"We're going to continue on for hopefully another 10 days, but the weather will decide when we stop, if the weather gets really nasty. We're in September in the Arctic, so it could get dicey," said Bernier.