Jim Balsillie, the former chairman and co-chief executive of BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion, had kept his philanthropic involvement in the search under wraps for several years.
Recently, though, the Guelph, Ont.-based millionaire entrepreneur went public as leaders of the Parks Canada-led initiative sought to boost the profile of the multi-partner project they hope will shed more light on what happened to HMS Erebus and HMS Terror during the ill-fated polar expedition in the mid-1840s.
For Balsillie, the quest that is set to resume in Nunavut on Sunday is more than simply a bid to unravel the mystery of what happened to aging naval hero Sir John Franklin's effort to find the long-sought Northwest Passage, and the "horrors of how the journey ended" for the explorer and his crew of 128 men.
Rather, Balsillie sees it as a "fascinating story" of what was going on in the world at the time, with today's search reflecting a similar effort in modern-day nation-building.
"Canada is an Arctic country. We're a northern people, so really, this exploration to me is elemental and strategic to Canada as a nation," says Balsillie, who, along with Tim MacDonald, founded the Arctic Research Foundation, which refitted a fishing boat into the Martin Bergmann research vessel that is helping out in the search.
"When you think of what the Arctic meant to Franklin and the Royal Navy, and you think of what it means to Canada today, what’s it about?" Balsillie asks.
In both eras, the answers are the same, he suggests: "Science and technology, courage and ambition, geopolitics, sovereignty and security, trade, commerce, weather and climate."
'Our gold medal'
Finding the ships would be "a great prize, and I think this is our gold medal to get," he says.
"If we find it, I think we'll be very, very proud to have found it. I think … the whole world's eyes will turn to Canada and the Arctic, and Canada will also start re-imagining and re-exploring its history and its position as an Arctic nation."
First, though, searchers have to find something — anything — that might help reveal what happened to the reinforced wooden warships that were beset in ice in 1846 and abandoned two years later off the west side of King William Island, according to Inuit accounts.
This year's search, led by Parks Canada — the sixth in seven years — has new high-tech Canadian tools to try out, including a sonar device similar to the kind of technology deployed in the hunt for the Malaysian airliner that went missing, it is assumed, somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean.
"It's like a torpedo that can be programmed and cover vast swaths of seabed using synthetic aperture sonar," says John Geiger, chief executive officer of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, which is also playing an important role in this year's search.
"Imagine something the size of a hubcap is lying on the seafloor …. this piece of technology will identify it and you'll be able actually see what's there."
Actually seeing what's down there could be very helpful, considering there is the distinct possibility that one or both vessels could well have been reduced to tiny pieces of kindling by the passage of time and the pressures of unrelenting Arctic ice, and scattered about by the currents.
Still, there should be some bigger pieces sitting somewhere, like the ships' locomotive engines. Searchers are also taking hope from the fact that other 19th-century wrecks, such as the HMS Investigator, have been found largely intact and well-preserved by the cold water.
"I would find it hard to believe one of [the Franklin vessels] didn't drop like a stone, but that's my theory," Basillie says, while acknowledging that "opinions on Franklin are like belly-buttons — everyone has one."
This year's search will also focus efforts on an area considered prime because it was near where the ships were last reported by the crewmen who were forced to abandon them in Victoria Strait. It has been a hard areas to probe because of the deep water — upwards of 80 metres — and because of the late retreat of ice each summer.
"There's never been anyone looking for the ships there, so I think there's a real logic to going and searching where the ships were last reported by Franklin's men," says Geiger.
There is also significant search support from the Royal Canadian Navy this year in the form of a warship, HMCS Kingston, which will join the effort for a 10-day period beginning Aug. 28 in Victoria Strait. The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier also returns to support this year's search.
"This is the biggest capacity we’ve ever had so we’re very optimistic," says Marc-Andre Bernier, Parks Canada's chief of underwater archeology.
With the new technology and double the number of vessels in total over last year — four, up from two — searchers are aiming to cover more area in 2014 than has been covered in all the recent searches combined. That area now stands at about 1,200 square kilometres.
"We're going to be running 24 hours a day," says Adrian Schimnowski, project director for the Arctic Research Foundation. "If the weather is good, we have to keep going and make the best of the time we're out there. The season is short."
Parks Canada is budgeting about $270,000 for its part in this year's search, which Bernier says is about more than trying to find the lost ships. Ongoing efforts involving other government departments and agencies include work to chart the ocean floor and record shoreline topography.
"What's really exciting is there is enthusiasm with the partners in working together," says Bernier.
Complex group of partners
The Royal Canadian Geographical Society is creating an educational program and bringing the polar tourism company One Ocean Expeditions into the project fold. The firm based out of Whistler, B.C., is providing a vessel — the One Ocean Voyager — which will act as a base for some of Parks Canada's research efforts.
"It's a very complex umbrella group of partners," says Geiger, noting it involves 13 federal departments or agencies, the government of Nunavut and the group the society leads, which also includes the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, Shell Canada Ltd. and the Arctic Research Foundation.
"When you have the Weston family supporting this research, when you have Jim Balsillie through the Arctic Research Foundation supporting the research, you know that this is something that has huge upside potential as a benefit to the country," says Geiger.
He estimates the society's group is putting more than $500,000 into the search project this year, "probably closer to a million when all is said and done," including the educational and public outreach efforts planned.
"Obviously from our standpoint there's a lot riding on a success this summer," he says.
"We're very very hopeful there will be a find because if we find even one ship then it's so much easier to tell the story and to celebrate, and to engage the public in the subject."
Geiger, whose 1987 book with Owen Beattie, Frozen in Time, recounts the excavation of the remains of three members of Franklin's crew, considers the Franklin saga the "greatest exploration mystery on the planet," and says he's excited by the prospects of a find.
"Not only would we have a glimpse into this important epoch of exploration history and the foundation of Canada's claims of sovereignty over the Arctic but we would be able to shed new light on a great historical mystery."
The Franklin crew members had early camera equipment with them — do images of the voyage exist, Geiger wonders. Might bodies be found?
"There's just so much potential there ... to enhance our understanding."
If something does turn up on sonar screens, Geiger says he'd be tempted to drop to his knees and "thank the good Lord because … things don't just simply disappear."
"Did they vanish into thin air? No. We know they're there somewhere. The question is … where did they end up?"