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A Visit to the Wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror National Historic Site of Canada

In 2019, guests aboard Adventure Canada’s Out of the Northwest Passage expedition became the first public visitors to the site of the wreck of the HMS Erebus, in partnership with Parks Canada. Here, Bunny Laden shares her personal experience of being part of this historic visit.
7 archaeologist diving

© Glen Gould

A diver ascends to the Research Barge Qiniqtiryaq to retrieve an underwater pencil.

A Compelling History

I have long been interested in the compelling history of the Northwest Passage. Through my own reading and research, and by hearing from experts I travelled alongside with Adventure Canada, I have learned much about what is currently understood about the history of this region, particularly its infamous shipwrecks.

For centuries, explorers searched for a shipping route from Europe through the Arctic waters to Asia. It wasn’t until the early 1900’s that someone made the complete passage; Roald Amundson, in his ship Gjøa, navigated successfully using a route that took him through Rae Strait.

The stories of the quest for a passage are riveting. Perhaps the most famous of all is that of Sir John Franklin, who set sail in 1845 with two very well-provisioned ships. Franklin and his men never returned. Search expeditions were largely unsuccessful. Explorer John Rae was the first to discover significant artefacts from Franklin’s expedition and to learn about the crew’s fate from the Inuit who lived in the area.

Piecing together the clues from various sources—notes, artefacts found on land, three bodies buried on Beechey island, accounts from Inuit in the region—we now know that Franklin’s ships became bound by ice in 1846 near King William Island. He died in 1847. In 1848, the crew abandoned the ships and attempted crossing the tundra by sledge. It is likely that the men perished because of scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, and extreme weather. John Rae had evidence that some men had turned to cannibalism, although the British refused to believe it at the time. That evidence is now well-supported.

What of the ships? The HMS Erebus wreck, rediscovered in September 2014, sits at the bottom of the sea near the hamlet of Uqsuqtuuq (Gjoa Haven), Nunavut. The HMS Terror was located in September 2016, north of the Erebus. In both cases, oral histories passed down by local Inuit were instrumental in the Parks Canada expeditions that pinpointed the locations of the wrecks.

5 barge erebus

© Bunny Laden

Approaching the Research Barge Qiniqtiryuaq by Zodiac

Adventure Awaits

For me, one of the big appeals for the Out of the Northwest Passage adventure was a chance to see this history firsthand. Prior to the trip, Adventure Canada recommended that I read Ken McGoogan’s Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage. It turned out to be great preparation, as not only would I get to sail in the wake of these intrepid explorers, but there was even a chance that I could visit the site of the HMS Erebus wreck. I knew there were no guarantees.

Travelling with Adventure Canada is as its name implies: an adventure, an activity full of unknowns. Only one thing is for certain on an expedition—there will be deviations from the planned itinerary, and this is what makes expedition travel so exciting. I heard that over the past few years Adventure Canada made five unsuccessful attempts to reach the wreck of the HMS Erebus. Would this sixth attempt be successful? Although I tried to keep myself under control, I was bursting with anticipation. I wasn’t the only one excited. The entire ship was buzzing.

Our Visit

When the day arrived, I was assigned to the second group that would visit the wreck of the HMS Erebus. When I got the call over the Ocean Endeavour’s PA system, I headed to the mud room, suited up, and disembarked onto a Zodiac. It was windy and a bit choppy. Out on the horizon I could see two tiny vessels: one the Research Barge Qiniqtiryuaq and the other the Research Vessel David Thompson.

As the Zodiac approached the David Thompson, I saw a rope ladder for us to embark. Fortunately, I was tall enough to be able to scooch right up on to the deck. Adventure Canada staff were on hand to help each one of us get on safely.

My first stop was the dining area where I saw the high-tech toys used by the scientists. They had underwater cameras, drones, small cameras that could fit into tight spaces, an ROV, and a quick-and-dirty sonar-like imaging device they use for preliminary scouting expeditions.

2 underwater archaeology drone

© Glen Gould

Camera equipment, a 3D-printed model of the wreck of the HMS Erebus, and a map of the wreck on display aboard the Research Vessel David Thompson

I then went upstairs to the bridge and met the captain and the scanning engineer. Both had been on the project for years and recalled the excitement of seeing an image finally form of the wreck. It was a tight space, but I got to see the scanning workstation and images of the wreck of the HMS Erebus below. Can you imagine? I was just above the actual HMS Erebus. I think I was just as excited as they were when they found the wreck!

As sad as I was to leave the David Thompson, I was excited to be speeding toward the Research Barge Qiniqtiryuaq. Qiniqtiryuaq means “searching for something or someone which was lost” in Inuktitut, and the barge acts as a floating research station directly above the wreck. The waves were a bit choppier but our driver expertly positioned the Zodiac so we could embark safely.

The barge has three shipping containers, each with a specific purpose. One is an archaeology lab for cataloguing and desalinating artefacts. I got to see all the new finds for the day—a boot, a bottle, and an unidentified metal object. It was history staring me in the face. So exciting!

Another container houses an air compressor and a warm water circulator for the diving archaeologists. Rather than carry tanks of air and wear a wet suit or dry suit, the divers breathe air sent through a hose and wear what’s called a warm suit. The scientists claim the warm water suit is like being in a spa because the suit circulates warm water continuously. This allows the research divers to stay down for longer periods in the Arctic waters. The third container is reserved for the dive-monitoring team, who watch and communicate with the research divers.

Erebus guardians victoria

© Victoria Polsoni

Adventure Canada Cultural Educator Joe Evyagotailak introduces the Inuit Guardians of Uqsuqtuuq, Nunavut, who work in partnership with Parks Canada. From right to left: Elder Tommy Tavalok, Brandon Qirqqut, Jimmy Pauloosie and son Pauloo Pauloosie, Sean Qitsualik, Joseph Okpakok, and Trevor Tulurialik.

More Learning Back Aboard

The experience was overwhelming, but it wasn’t over. Back on the ship I attended a presentation by a panel of Inuit Guardians. These men work in partnership with Parks Canada to camp out in a location where they can monitor the wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror site to ensure that no one without authorization enters the “do not sail” area. We had hoped to visit their camp, but the weather conditions would not allow for a safe landing, so the Guardians came to us. They talked about life as a Guardian and showed photos of their camp. Later in the evening, Parks Canada and one of the archaeologists gave another presentation to discuss recent findings and answer questions.

Everyone—Parks Canada Rangers, Inuit Guardians, Adventure Canada staff, research scientists, and passengers—felt the day was a resounding success. Experiences like this don’t just happen. They require careful planning, flawless logistics, an eye towards safety, flexibility, and a bit of humour. The Adventure Canada staff on my trip were a class act. For me, my visit to the wreck of the HMS Erebus is, and will continue to be, one of the highlights of my life.

About the Author

Bunny Laden

Bunny Laden

Adventure Canada Guest

Bunny Laden received her PhD in Cognitive Science and Music from the University of Washington, Seattle where she then became a Research Assistant Professor. After teaching at university for several years she joined Apple and worked on every major technology over a period of twenty-two years. She travelled with Adventure Canada on Out of the Northwest Passage with her husband Glen in September 2019. She looks forward to Scotland Slowly and Iceland Circumnavigation in 2021.