The 5½-week search wrapped up recently, with nothing found in the frigid Nunavut waters thought to hold a high potential for discoveries connected to HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
Parks Canada says this year's search — the fifth in six years — turned up no sign of the ships, but covered more territory than any previous search season.
"We have a very good idea of what we’re looking for and it will be fairly clear if and when we come across the remains of either vessel," Ryan Harris, Parks Canada's senior underwater archeologist, said in an interview Friday.
Searchers covered 486 square kilometres of seafloor with sidescan sonar, bringing the total area covered to about 1,300 square kilometres, or roughly three-quarters of a total area Parks Canada considers holds a high potential for a discovery.
Harris remains undaunted in a search that has so far not turned up any sign of the ships from the ultimately doomed 1845 mission led by aging naval hero Sir John Franklin to find the long-sought Northwest Passage.
"We're confident one day these vessels will be found. It's really only a matter of time," said Harris.
"Certainly when the wreckage of one or the other [ships] first appears on the sidescan sonar, whoever's looking at the screen is going to have the thrill of a lifetime."
- Check out coverage of the Franklin search
- See a timeline of efforts to find the Franklin ships
- See how the British admiralty mapped explorers' finds
But that thrill has been elusive, and Harris is under no illusion about the scope of the task Parks Canada faces.
"If you are out on the water and you gaze out and can't necessarily see land in any direction, [and] you're confronted with the vastness of the ocean, it can really seem like an insurmountable challenge.
"But you have to look at it on a larger scale, where hour by hour, week by week, month by month, year by year, all of a sudden we've managed to cover these vast tracts of the seafloor and it really does add up in time and leads us to think that we're making steady progress."
While the search on the water has so far come up empty, the land-based activities have produced some finds.
Searchers led by Doug Stenton, Nunavut’s director of heritage, went ashore on King William Island, where Franklin expedition sailors went after Erebus and Terror were beset in ice.
Among other activities this year, the searchers re-examined a site where it was believed an 1879 search party buried remains of expedition members that had been found scattered along the shore of Erebus Bay.
“Erebus Bay is an important location in the archeology of the Franklin expedition primarily because a ship’s boat containing two human skeletons and a large number of other items was found there in 1859,” Stenton said in an email.
Several bones were gathered this year for identification and analysis. They will be taken back to the site in 2014.
Searchers this year also visited other known Franklin archeological sites on King William Island and collected about 200 small artifacts, ranging from bits of canvas and leather to nails, rivets, cans, metal containers, cast iron and rope.
The artifacts gathered at Erebus Bay don’t provide major new insights into the fate of the expedition, Stenton said.
But he expects analysis of the artifacts "will enhance our understanding" of what happened to the ships and the 129 men they carried.
Analzying wood fragments, for example, may offer new insight into the type of smaller boats the sailors hauled over the ice after abandoning Erebus and Terror. The artifacts could also shed light on how they may have been used by the Inuit who discovered them later.
“At one site, we recovered iron washers with numerous cut marks resulting from efforts to remove them, and at another site we recovered pieces of cast iron — possibly the remains of a stove — that had been cached beneath some stones,” said Stenton.
According to Inuit testimony, recorded by search parties after the ships were beset in ice in 1846 and deserted off King William Island two years later, one ship sank in deep water west of the island. The other went south, perhaps as far as the Queen Maud Gulf and maybe into Wilmot and Crampton Bay.
The men all died, making for a sad demise that has never been fully explained and which has become something of a Victorian gothic horror story, complete with hints of cannibalism.
This year’s Parks Canada search had a budget of $130,000, down from $275,000 in 2012. That search also turned up small artifacts and bits of human remains.
The agency used its own 11-metre survey vessel, the Investigator, in the search for the first time this year and was also hoping to have on hand. But manufacturing and shipping delays meant a $300,000 automated underwater vehicle and a $175,000 autonomous underwater vehicle didn't make it north in time.
The AUV would allow searchers to get into areas that are less accessible, specifically in the agency's southern search area in the Queen Maud Gulf. Without that option this year, searchers devoted more attention to their northern area.
"We spent more time this year working up in the Victoria Strait than we might otherwise," said Harris. "But it all worked out well because we had generally decent weather conditions to be operating up in the Victoria Strait."
The AUV and the ROV have been purchased for Parks Canada's general underwater archeology program, rather than specifically for the Franklin search, the agency said.
Where did the artifacts go?
This year, the land-based archeological activities focused on trying to fully document sites at Erebus Bay that had first been reported in the early 1990s. At that time, Stenton said, only "limited information" was recorded.
"In 2013, we found more artifacts than were originally reported at some sites, and fewer artifacts than were reported at others," Stenton said.
At one site, pieces of canvas and leather were reported 20 years ago, but searchers found no trace of them this year.
Stenton said the items may have been removed by people in the intervening time, or displaced by natural forces such as wind or waves.
The work this year will help the Government of Nunavut develop its collection of Franklin expedition artifacts, Stenton said.
Most artifacts gathered by searchers in the 19th century are in collections in other countries. Britain’s National Maritime Museum, which describes the Franklin expedition as “the worst disaster in the history of British polar exploration,” has a Franklin relics collection that includes tinted spectacles, a pocket watch, a silver table spoon and pocket knives.
The archeological work this year may also lay the groundwork for more tourism in the area, something for which demand has been increasing as ice-free conditions in the Northwest Passage make it more attractive for cruise ships and private tourist visits.
Stenton said that in order for the territorial government to assess the tourism potential and suitability at the Franklin sites on King William Island, it needs to have up-to-date information about their condition.
Harris hopes searchers will be able to complete the sonar survey of their high-priority areas next year.
"When the prime minister spoke in Cambridge Bay last year, he committed us to a three-year survey and every year we manage to cover more ground than in the year previous so we hope that continues for next year," he said.
"We have a little bit more survey to do in the Alexandra Strait and if there's not a wreck, then there's deeper open water from the point [where the ships were abandoned] in 1848 towards the areas that we've covered so far, so basically we're looking at linking up all these areas and hopefully it leads to a find next year."