For the first time, Ottawa is trying to find a sunken 19th-century ship that helped discover the final leg of the Northwest Passage.
In January 1850, the HMS Investigator set sail from Britain under the command of Capt. Robert McClure.
He was on a mission to rescue Sir John Franklin, a renowned British explorer whose recent 129-man expedition had vanished while searching for a potentially lucrative trade route to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
The Investigator entered Arctic waters from the west after travelling around the southern tip of South America. Like Franklin's expedition, the ship then became trapped in ice and the crew was forced to eventually abandon it. (The expedition was later miraculously rescued.)
McClure never discovered what befell Franklin, but he was credited with stumbling on the last uncharted section of the Northwest Passage -- which by then had eluded British explorers for 300 years.
Now, archaeologists with the federal government are trying to locate the historical vessel. It's believed to have sunk near the western edge of the Canadian Arctic archipelago.
McClure's expedition "kind of had a domino effect on the whole thing," said Marc-Andre Bernier, who is in charge of the Parks Canada archeologists seeking to uncover the Investigator's resting place.
On Thursday, the team arrived at a cache of supplies that McClure had deposited on the shore of what he dubbed Mercy Bay.
They set up a camp that includes an electric fence and is watched over by Inuvialuit wildlife monitors to protect them from roaming polar bears.
A few hundred metres off shore, the archeologists then set about mapping the seabed using side-scan sonar. If they find anything unusual or "shipwreck-like," they'll dispatch a miniature robotic submarine with a camera attached to verify the find.
"Cold water is very good for preservation," Bernier said by phone from Ottawa. "If the water is fairly deep, then we might have some fairly intact structure."
"There are other instances of wrecks found in the arctic in fairly good condition," he added.
Due to the remoteness of the site, which lies in what is now Aulavik National Park on Banks Island, the archeologists have no means of communication save for a satellite phone to be used only in case of emergencies. So news of their discoveries won't be known until early August when they return to the mainland.
Another trip is planned later in August to locate Franklin's two lost ships -- both of which have been deemed National Historic sites -- off the coast of Nunavut.
Bernier said the timing of the searches has to do with the opening up of the Northwest Passage.
"There are a number of sites in the Arctic like this," he said. "We want to make sure they're protected."
"There's more water free of ice every year… There are more visitors in the Arctic. There's more boat traffic."
Lost in the Canadian Arctic, two British polar exploration ships more than 150 years old are frozen in some icy nook and cranny.
Despite more than 30 search and rescue missions for Captain Sir John Franklin and his crew, only scraps of evidence -- forks and spoons, shoes, a letter -- have been found of the 1845 expedition.
Now a team of Canadian archaeologists is setting off with modern sonar sea-floor mapping instruments, along with historical records to locate HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, reports a BBC News article. The researchers hope to finally piece together what happened to the shipwrecked crew.
Veteran explorer Franklin led two ships and 128 men north in search of the legendary North-West Passage -- a narrow channel that connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
The existence of such a channel would revolutionize trading; ships would no longer need to circumnavigate around the Americas to reach the West Coast or Asia. For this reason, the Royal Navy was offering a £10,000 reward for finding the North-West Passage.
The passage was eventually discovered by Captain Robert McClure in 1855 during a failed rescue mission for Franklin’s crew. Today ships can use the iceberg-filled pathway, but only in the dead of summer.
When Franklin set off on his final voyage, he was motivated by the prize money, adventure and glory. No stranger to the harsh, cold conditions of the Arctic, Franklin had already mapped 1,200 miles of Canadian coastline on previous expeditions.
The crew outfitted the front tips of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus with iron so the ships could bust through any icy barriers. The ships also featured the latest technology at the time -- small steam engines.
But the Arctic proved a formidable foe. The ships crashed, and whether due to lead poisoning from poorly packaged food, scurvy or simply not enough food, the entire crew perished.
Interviews with Inuits during early rescue missions revealed that some members of the crew got crazed and desperate, resorting to cannibalism.
The mystery of how all the explorers died is one of the many questions the Canadian archaeologists hope to resolve.
The archaeologists are following the same sea route used by Franklin and his crew in 1845: entering the Arctic from the East and maneuvering past Greenland into the vast Canadian Arctic archipelago.
The team is basing their search on the few clues researchers have already accumulated. For example, the location of the shipwreck is suspected to be somewhere along Mercy Bay and could be marked by debris of the wreck, including a pile of coal.
If the investigation in Mercy Bay proves unfruitful, the team plans on flying more than 621 miles east to another potential crash spot. In this second location, west of the Adelaide Peninsula, the archaeologists hope to survey the sea floor for remnants of the ships.
And maybe, fingers crossed, this will be the final search mission for Franklin and his crew.