TORONTO — Canada has found one of the two sunken British ships from Sir John Franklin's 1845 expedition that disappeared in the Arctic, parts of the deck and mainmast intact.
The wreck was discovered about 36 feet below the surface in Queen Maud Gulf, off the Nunavut mainland, about 1,800 miles north of Toronto, said John Geiger, chief executive officer of The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, which participated in the search.
"This is one of the two most important undiscovered shipwrecks in the world," Geiger said today in a statement. "It's a wonderful and exciting discovery that promises to shed more light on the ill-fated expedition's final months, weeks, and days."
It's not clear yet whether the vessel is Her Majesty's Ship Erebus or the HMS Terror, said Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who announced the discovery at a media conference in Ottawa on Tuesday. The discovery's authenticity was confirmed on Sunday using a remotely operated underwater vehicle, Harper said in a statement.
Finding the ships has been part of a drive by Harper's Conservative government to assert sovereignty over Canada's north at a time when territorial claims in the Arctic are being challenged internationally. Parks Canada, a federal agency, has led six searches for the lost ships since 2008.
"This is truly a historic moment for Canada," Harper said in his statement. "Franklin's ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada's Arctic sovereignty."
Divers are exploring the wreck, which was found several hundred miles south of the initial search area, to identify it before weather conditions worsen, Geiger said in a telephone interview. Future efforts will continue the search for the other Franklin vessel, he said.
"We only have one of the two expedition ships, so there will be ongoing efforts to locate the other vessel and complete the story," he said.
Parks Canada's Ryan Harris, who led the search, revealed Tuesday in Ottawa a sonar image of the find that showed deck structures and the mainmast, which was sheared off by the ice when the ship sank. The contents of the ship are likely well preserved, Harris said, according to a press pool report.
The Erebus and Terror left England in May 1845 under command of Franklin on an Arctic expedition to search for a Northwest Passage to Asia. The expedition's two ships set out with 134 officers and men.
The ships became trapped in ice in late 1846 and remained so for about one and a half years, according to a message found in a cairn on King William Island in 1859. The message said Franklin died on June 11, 1847 and an additional 23 crew members had also perished. On April 1848, the 105 remaining survivors deserted the ships. The entire complement of both ships perished and the ships were lost to the ice, according to a briefing on a government website.
The missing ships and fate of Franklin and his crew sparked searches by British and American expeditions starting in 1848, with more recent efforts by Canadian researchers. Canadian archaeologists in July 2010 found the wreck of the HMS Investigator, which was abandoned in 1853 after becoming trapped in ice while searching for Franklin.
This year's search, which also included involvement by the Arctic Research Foundation, the Canadian Coast Guard, Royal Canadian Navy and Nunavut government, was initially focused in Victoria Strait off the west coast of King William Island.