Solving a 170-year-old mystery: How Franklin’s HMS Erebus was found

Andrew Stirling (center), with archaeologists Bob Park (left) and Doug Stenton (right). On the table is the iron davit Stirling discovered, which helped pinpoint the location of the HMS Erebus. Photo courtesy of Andrew Stirling
Andrew Stirling is a pilot for Transport Canada, and flies MBB Bo.105s for the Canadian Coast Guard. Last August, he joined Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier for the middle leg of its annual Arctic patrol, during which it took part in the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition. It was the most ambitious search yet for the wreckage of two Royal Navy ships that disappeared during the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. And, after almost 170 years, the wreckage of HMS Erebus was finally found.
Vertical: How did the mission come about?
Andrew Stirling: Every year, the Coast Guard sends up the icebreaker Laurier from the west coast. It’s part of their annual Arctic patrol, where they go up to maintain and check on all the navigational aids up there.
V: Is it always a secondary aim to look for the Franklin ships?
AS: Parks Canada was in charge of looking for the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The Government of Nunavut would do the land-based archaeology. They just used the icebreaker as a platform to launch their boats and use it as sort of a base while they’re up there. It’s only for a very narrow time. The ship is up there for that six week middle tour, and they may get 10 days/two weeks max out of that time to specifically use it for their purpose.
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V: What was your role on the ship?
AS:To basically provide helicopter support to the Canadian Coast Guard in any way I can. I move people when there’s a shore party that goes, we do slinging off the ship if we have to take new parts to the navigational aids, and it’s also a SAR [search-and-rescue] platform.
V: What are the challenges of working on an icebreaker?
AS: It’s a fairly small confined area. It does have hazards, and it’s a moving platform. When the deck is pitching or rolling, it can be quite challenging timing it so you don’t have a hard landing. The ship would turn port or starboard so that the wind wasn’t coming directly over the superstructure.
V: What do you think of the Bo.105 as a platform for that role?
AS: I think it’s a very good platform, and one of the things I like about it is the landing gear. The deck is pitching and rolling, and the landing gear on a 105 
is very sturdy and very robust. The deck can come up suddenly and meet you halfway as you’re coming down, and you can hit it substantially enough to jar your teeth, and that landing gear just takes it. In that respect, it’s very good. Could it use more power? Yeah, but pilots are always wanting more power!
V: Where was it stored on the ship?

AS: There’s a retractable hangar. Where we land, we’re in an area where we’re aft of any obstacle. When we’re done ops for the day, the blades are folded and we have a portable dolly that can come out, lift the machine, and bring it forward — and then the actual hangar opens up and covers the machine for the night.
Stenton (left) with Stirling on an island during the expedition. The Coast Guard’s MBB Bo.105 is in the background. Photo courtesy of Andrew Stirling
V: What led to the discovery of the ship?
AS: It was Sept. 1, and we were in the southern search area. Canadian Hydrographic Services were on board, and the hydrographer in charge was Scott Youngblut. He needed to put in a GPS unit on a particular point of land to help them with their mapping. He offered up the two seats in the back to the two land archaeologists on board — Dr. Doug Stenton, the director of heritage for the Government of Nunavut, and Dr. Robert [Bob] Park from the University of Waterloo. Doug had done a lot of research, and the southern search area was a particular interest to him, because way back when they started looking for the Franklin expedition [in the 1850s], the Inuit told some of the search parties that they had seen a ship in this area.
You do a reconnaissance of the area to make sure there are no predators down there, and to see if you can spot what’s called a “tent ring” — an Inuit circle of stones that, back in the day, they used to anchor down their shelter. They don’t do that nowadays, so it gives an age to the site. We spotted a tent ring from the air and landed. Doug and Bob went off to the tent ring to do their archaeological stuff, while I helped Scott move some of the gear out for him.
Doug and Bob had sort of given me a rudimentary archaeology lesson — look, find, but don’t touch! I just followed their advice, and off I went. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something that didn’t look right with the surroundings. I walked over to investigate it, and it was rusted piece of iron. It was about 18 inches long, four inches wide, and it looked like a bicycle fork. I looked around and whistled and waved, and Bob and Doug came over. They were excited, and while we didn’t know what it was, they thought it could be very important. So they did their surveying, mapping, cataloguing of the part, and then I was allowed to pick it up. After that, Doug was looking at it, talking about the identification mark, which was the British broad arrow, and he literally opens up his hand and there were the two broad arrows underneath. So they know it’s from a British Royal Navy ship, and the only one that’s been in the area was one of the Franklin expedition ships.
I took the piece back to the helicopter and showed Scott along the way. Not very far from the machine, there was a pile of rocks that caught my eye, and
I walked over and saw sort of a half pie-shaped piece of wood. It was perfectly rounded and had an iron nail in it. And there was another bit of wood that was partially buried in the tundra, and
it had two iron nails sticking out of it. So I looked over and waved at Bob, and he and Doug came over and recorded everything. The one piece was lying there, so it was easy to recover; the other piece, it was fun watching Doug carefully excavate it, because it was quite fragile. And the two bits actually, as it turned out, fit together — and it was called a hawse cover.
When we got back to the ship, they showed Captain [Bill] Noon and marine archaeologists Ryan [Harris] and Jonathan [Moore], from Parks Canada. They had blueprints of the ships on board, and they were able to identify the part and say, ‘That’s it. That’s what you found. More importantly, where did you find it?’ Doug showed them, and they said, ‘That’s where we’re going to look for the ship.’ And sure enough that’s where they found the Erebus.
V: You were also asked to return some of the remains of the crewmembers, weren’t you? 
AS: During the early searches when they were looking for the crew, they found remains of some of them on King William Island. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s the Government of Nunavut actually put the remains in two boxes, and there’s a small plaque dedicated to the lost expedition. In 2013, Doug had taken some of these remains to do some DNA mapping to see if they can actually match up with any family members in Britain. And, last year, he returned the remains back to the burial cairn. Just because of my position, he asked me to assist him. It’s really kind of hard to put into words; it was an honor to be asked. Here you are holding the remains of this Franklin expedition crewmember, and there’s such a strong connection to the story, you’re looking around trying to imagine what these poor guys had gone through. And the cruel irony
 of even after they had resorted to cannibalism, not one of the 105 guys who had started out walking survived. That really brought it home for me at that moment.
Stirling on King William Island, alongside a burial cairn containing the remains of some of the Franklin Expedition crewmembers. Photo courtesy of Andrew Stirling
V: Did you get called out on any SAR missions while you were there?
AS: While we were anchored in Gjoa Haven,
we got a call from Joint Rescue Centre that there were 13 people stranded on three sites about 50 miles across Rasmussen Basin. Myself and a SAR specialist — Gabriel Giguere — went out, and we were able to identify the areas, find everybody, and get them all safely back on board the ship.
It was challenging because of the time of day and the less-than-ideal weather conditions — we started late in the afternoon and nightfall was coming. The following day we were SAR tasked again and safely returned six more people from Gjoa Haven that were on King Island, halfway down Chantrey Inlet.
V: What’s next for the Franklin search teams?
AS: I think they’re going to be wanting to get back on the dive site ASAP — to the Erebus. There are lots of artifacts — it’s so well preserved. They just did sort of a preliminary outside reconnaissance of it to see what’s what, so there’s lots of work for them still to do. I’m not sure what Coast Guard’s role will be this year, whether they’ll be as big a platform for them or whether Parks will be using one of their own boats for that. But will they be looking for Terror? Oh yes, definitely. And if Inuit oral history — which has proven itself to be rather accurate — holds true, the ship actually sank at point of abandonment; it was crushed in the ice and sank there.
V: So it’s fair to say it was a pretty special experience for you?
AS: It was an amazing opportunity. How fortunate for me to be able to be in that position. And especially now that I’ve sort of gotten into the Franklin fever a little bit; I’ve read some books that are out there. You read about the places that these guys have written about, and when I’m reading it, I’m going, ‘I’ve been there!’ What a great opportunity, what a fantastic summer, and amazing people to work with. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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