In September 2014, Marc-André Bernier, head of underwater archeology at Parks Canada, was among eight divers to explore a long-lost shipwreck from the Franklin expedition.
At the time, the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition had not yet confirmed that the wreck on the seafloor of the Queen Maud Gulf was the HMS Erebus. But after a six-year search covering some 1,200 square kilometres, archeologists knew they were closer to unlocking a 170-year mystery.
“You’re the first to dive on a wreck site that is over 100 feet long and you can’t see the hull because it’s covered in kelp…It was absolutely amazing. It’s like being in a time machine. You’re looking at something that hasn’t moved in 170 years,” says Bernier (BA ʼ86 and MA ʼ90, Classical Studies). “You’re so in awe but you have a limited amount of time to do the work. You’re focussing on what you see but, in this case, I kept stopping to say ‘I can’t believe this is true.’ One of the things I told the team as we were preparing to dive on the wreck for the first time was, ‘We have a job to do, but every diver in the world wants to be us right now. So enjoy the moment.’”
The team had only a day-and-a-half to observe and record details about the wreck and its surrounding debris. Initially, they hadn’t planned to extract any artifacts, but when divers spotted the ship’s bell, Bernier and other expedition members, including Nunavut Director of Heritage Doug Stenton and senior underwater archeologist and project director Ryan Harris, decided to salvage it.
Bernier says that they salvaged the bell for scientific reasons, since it could help confirm which Franklin expedition ship they had discovered, but that they also wanted to salvage it to prevent it from being carried away by ice or removed by cowboy collectors to be sold on eBay.
“The wreck is in very shallow water [11 metres]. There are places where the deck is damaged by ice, very close to where the bell was. This is a wreck with one of the highest profiles in the world right now. It is one of the most sought-after wrecks in the history of underwater archeology,” says Bernier. “The bell is the beating heart of the ship. If somebody was going out there to loot the site, this would be the first object to go. And it was readily accessible.”
“There are lots of artifacts from wrecks on sale on eBay; just look at the Empress of Ireland and you can find objects recovered by divers on sale on the internet. With the profile of HMS Erebus, we were certainly concerned. That’s why we’re keeping the location of the wreck a secret for now.”
Today, Bernier is back in Ottawa at the Parks Canada warehouse on Walkley Road, examining high-tech sonar images and information that divers gathered about the wreck, and planning how to further study the site next summer. As manager of the Parks Canada underwater team since 2008, Bernier oversees projects and logistics. He has worked for Parks Canada since 1990, scoring his dream job just as he was finishing his master’s dissertation at the University of Ottawa.
Originally from Kapuskasing in northern Ontario, Bernier started scuba diving at age 17 as a CEGEP student in Rouyn-Noranda. He explored the lakes of northern Quebec and, as a uOttawa student, the St. Lawrence River. As an undergraduate, he discovered that archeology could be done under water. From then on, he focused on maritime themes, including navigation, ancient ships and harbour infrastructure. He studied Greek archeology and wrote his thesis on the topology of harbours in a region of Greece. His love of diving and his experience and knowledge of archeology meant that he was a perfect fit for the Parks Canada job.
One of his major achievements at Parks Canada has been co-editing a five-volume report entitled The Underwater Archeology of Red Bay. Thanks to his methodology and in-depth study, his report of a 16th century wreck of a Basque whaling ship off Red Bay, Labrador, reads like a how-to manual for underwater archeologists.
Bernier says that now in its 50th year, Parks Canada’s underwater archeology team is ready for the challenge of systematically unveiling the secrets of the HMS Erebus.
“Right now, we are still very much involved in the aftermath of the discovery,” he says, adding that he and the team are working out what equipment and archeological methodology they will employ.
“It’s a complex site and the integrity of it is so high. There is so much left that it will take some time to really do justice to the site. We will go at it systematically, not rushing, because it’s a unique opportunity to look into that expedition. We are going to do it properly.”
The HMS Erebus was found this year partly because it was an odd year for ice, says Bernier. There were two broad search areas: one in the southern strait, which had been targeted to concur with Inuit oral history of a shipwreck south of King William Island dating back to the 19th century. Another search area was further north. Bernier said that in the past, annual searches would focus on the southern site first and then head north as the ice retreated. However, this year, ice in the north did not open up and some of these expedition ships turned south. Bernier was in the north when a side scan sonar towed by Parks Canada’s 33-foot research vessel Investigator found the wreck at the southern site. However, due to an imperative to maintain strict radio silence, Bernier only learned of the discovery when he returned south to board the Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Bernier says he was thrilled when Harris silently showed him images of the wreck.
“He showed me the sonar screen image as it was unravelling, as he saw it. Seeing the wreck image, the full ship, was just amazing. What went through my mind was ‘finally, after six years, we did it!’ Then your mind speeds ahead extremely rapidly. Ok, what does this imply? The magnitude of the find – this is worldwide news and we are in the middle of it,” says Bernier. “I thought, ‘Okay, this means we are going to have a chance to answer a lot of questions. We have a complete ship. The archeology is going to be absolutely fantastic. This is going to deliver so much of the mystery of the Franklin expedition.’ We’re going to open up a whole new book. It’s going to be the best record of what happened to this expedition. It’s going to deliver a ton of information. Just answering one question will open up five more. It’s a dizzying feeling, just starting to think of the potential of what we can find.”
The story of the doomed Franklin expedition has always been shrouded in mystery, and its fate captured the imagination of Victorian Britain. In May 1845, Sir John Franklin, a veteran Royal Navy explorer, set sail from England with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to search for the Northwest Passage. The expedition left with enough provisions for three years and a library of 1200 books. The Royal Canadian Geographic Society, one of the partners in the 2014 Victoria Strait expedition, described Sir Franklin as an exploration hero of his day who had led previous missions to navigate the Arctic. Franklin’s ships were last seen entering Baffin Bay by two whaling ship crews in August 1845. In 1859, a search effort commissioned by Sir Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, found a grim message in a cairn on Victory Point, King William Island. It said the ships had become trapped in the ice in 1846 for 18 months and that Franklin had died on June 11, 1847. On April 22, 1848, 105 survivors had deserted the ships to head to Back’s Fish River on foot. They all perished.
More answers about the fate of the expedition are certain to be found in the HMS Erebus, says Bernier, who, as a student, used to dream about what it would be like to be involved in such an incredible find.
“As an archeologist, I am blessed to be a part of this. For us, it’s not about the fame or glory. As archeologists, we are privileged, but we also have the responsibility of delivering the best archeology possible. We have an extraordinary site. We are still going to look for HMS Terror. There were two zones. So now we will focus the search on the other zone, which is only open a few weeks a year. But we will start diving on the Erebus to do some archeology next summer.”