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HMS Terror Wreck Discovered in The Arctic

Canadian authorities have recently confirmed that the wreck found in September in the Arctic’s unchartered Terror Bay is that of long-lost British Navy ship HMS Terror.

The research vessel Martin Bergmann discovered the HMS Terror wreck near King William Island on September 3rd. The shipwreck is in near perfect condition.

What happened to the HMS Terror?

The discovery sheds light on a mystery that has remained unsolved for nearly 170 years. In 1845, British explorer Sir John Franklin set out on an expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage. This potential trade route would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Arctic. Franklin set sail with two ships, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus. In September 1846, both ships became trapped in thick ice. Nearly two years later, the crew finally deserted the ships and attempted to make their way south.

A note discovered 11 years later on King William Island revealed that by the time the crew left the two ships in April 1848, 15 crew members and eight officers had died, including Sir John Franklin himself. Later forensic studies carried out on bodies found buried at the expedition’s winter base suggested that tuberculosis had swept through the expedition. But those who survived the outbreak faced a worse fate still. Of the 106 men that abandoned the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus in 1848, not one made it back to civilization.

What happened to the crew?

Most of the crew simply disappeared without a trace. Cut marks on human bones found on King William Island suggest that the crew resorted to cannibalism, however. The story of Franklin’s lost expedition marks one of the British Navy’s greatest tragedies. It became the stuff of legend in the world of polar exploration. Since 2008, Parks Canada has been actively looking for the wrecks of the Terror and the Erebus. In 2014, the latter ship was finally found at the bottom of Victoria Strait. 

How was the HMS Terror found?

On September 3rd, researchers aboard Arctic Research Foundation ship Martin Bergmann powered into Terror Bay on a tip from Inuit crew-member Sammy Kogvik, who remembered seeing wood preserved in sea ice during a fishing trip to the region some years before. The team decided that his hunch was worth investigating. Finding nothing at first, the ship was on its way out of the bay when gradually, a silhouette began to appear on the depth sounder. Upon closer inspection with an ROV, the researchers realized they had hit gold.

It took some time to confirm that the wreck was indeed the HMS Terror, especially as its location was some 60 miles (96 km) south of the place in which records stated that the crew abandoned the ill-fated ship. Previously, Franklin expedition experts believed that shifting sea ice crushed the Terror, but this newly found wreck was remarkably intact. In the end, researchers confirmed the discovery by comparing digital images of the wreck with original builders’ plans of the Terror.

What’s next for the HMS Terror?

Scientists hope that further exploration of the wreck may shed some light on what exactly happened to the doomed crew. Arctic Research Foundation spokesperson Adrian Schimnowski said in an interview with the Guardian that “everything was shut. Even the windows are still intact. If you could lift this boat out of the water and pump the water out, it would probably float.”

The fact that the wreck is lying level on the seafloor suggests that instead of meeting a violent end, it sank gently down towards its final resting place.

While investigations continue, Parks Canada has announced that it is working closely with the region’s Inuit people to secure joint ownership of the historically significant wreckage. Canadian Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna is hailing the discovery as “a unique and incredible opportunity for archaeological exploration and the sharing [of] Inuit history and culture with the world.”