HMS Terror.jpg
Photograph: George Back [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Researchers in Canada believe they have found the wreckage of the HMS Terror, one of two ships lost in an ill-fated 19th century Arctic expedition.

The presumed wreckage of the British Royal Navy ship, which was abandoned in sea ice in 1848 during a failed attempt to sail through the Northwest Passage, was found on September 3 by the the Arctic Research foundation's Martin Bergmann research vessel, according to news reports.

It was located in the uncharted waters of coincidentally named Terror Bay on the south-west corner of King William Island in Nunavut, Canada's northern most territory.

The mysterious disappearance of the 129-crew expedition, headed by Sir John Franklin, had bedevilled the Royal British Navy and generations of historians and polar explorers for almost 170 years.

The discovery was made about 100 kilometres north of where the wreck of the expedition’s flagship, HMS Erebus, was found almost two years ago.

The crew of the Martin Bergmann diverted to search the waters of Terror Bay only after hearing the story of Sammy Kogvik, an indigenous Inuk Canadian ranger.

Kogvik told his crew mates that while on a fishing trip near Terror Bay seven years ago, he stumbled upon a piece wooden mast sticking out of the sea.

But Kogvik kept his discovery secret, especially since his camera with the pictures of the piece of wood mysteriously disappeared, pointing to bad omens.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, that Kogvik felt comfortable enough to share his story with the rest of the crew.

“As soon as he said the story, I knew from his eyes and the way he was speaking that he had something," Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation’s operations director, told the Canadian press. "I’d also heard similar stories in the past four years, so we quickly decided to change our course to go in to Terror Bay.”

The ship’s sonars picked up a grainy image of a shipwreck lying 24 metres below the surface.

The crew sent down a remote-controlled underwater vehicle operated by a Canadian Navy officer. It captured video images of a well-preserved ship similar to Terror, Royal Canadian Navy Rear Admiral John Newton told the Globe and Mail.

The shipwreck lay on the sea floor with its three masts broken but still standing. Almost all hatches were closed and everything stowed.

The location of the discovery and the ship’s condition could have implications for historians’ understanding the fate of Franklin’s expedition.

Historians had long thought that the 105 surviving crew members had tried to march south after abandoning the ice-trapped ship.

But Newton said that the discovery of the HMS Terror with almost all the hatches battened down opens the possibility that at least some of the crew returned to the ship and attempted to sail it out of the frozen passage.

“It sounds like the hand of man was involved in keeping that ship going,” Newton told the Globe and Mail. 

Ownership of both shipwrecks has been transferred from Britain to the Canadian government, and their resting spots are considered historic sites.

Parks Canada, the federal agency that manages Canada’s national parks and historic sites, is excited about the reports of the discovery of the wreck, said in a statement emailed to dpa.

It also will be important for indigenous communities, reflecting their valuable role in the search for the ship and making a significant contribution to completing the Franklin story, the statement said.

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