In search of the lost expedition
Film-maker John Murray and Kevin Cronin will hunt for traces of teh Franklin expedition
Explorer Sir John Franklin's ships disappeared in the Arctic in 1845. Two Irishmen hope to solve the enduring mystery, writes Arminta Wallace.
If you think adventure is dead, you should talk to John Murray. He has made films on Everest and in the Antarctic. He has trekked across Siberia with a tribe of nomads and their reindeer; and in a few weeks' time he will set off for the frozen Arctic in search of a shipwreck. Not just any old shipwreck, needless to say. This particular shipwreck has been declared a national monument by the Canadian government - even though no-one knows where it is. Murray, however, reckons he has a fair idea where it might be, so he has teamed up with Dublin businessman and sponsor Kevin Cronin and a Canadian researcher called David Woodman to comb the south-west coast of Canada's King William Island for the remains of HMS Terror.
One way or another, the search will take this modest Irish-Canadian expedition into legendary territory. The notion of a Northwest Passage, aka the road to Cathay - a secret trade route across the top of the world which would deliver fabulous wealth to whoever discovered it - goes back into the mists of time, pre-dating the Norse sagas and the voyage of Brendan the Navigator. Ship after ship set off in pursuit and by the mid-19th century, despite a considerable body of evidence to the effect that all the Northwest Passage was ever likely to deliver was disaster and death, much of the potential route had been charted.
On May 19th, 1845, an expedition led by the veteran Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin sailed out of London. It boasted 129 hand-picked officers and men, equipped with the most advanced technology of the day: desalinators, canned food, cameras. Its ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were iron-plated, locomotive-powered and steam-heated. It was billed as the expedition that couldn't fail. On July 26th, Franklin's ships were spotted by two whaling ships in Baffin Bay, off the west coast of Greenland. They were never seen again.
The story of Franklin's lost expedition is still one of the great mysteries of exploration and, according to John Murray, one of the great adventure stories of all time. It was headline news for half a century, with more than 50 rescue expeditions - many of them sponsored by increasingly powerful media barons - scouring the Arctic in an attempt to solve the puzzle. "The Arctic was the last void, and the Northwest Passage was the last mystery," says Murray. "It was like going into darkest Africa when it was dark. In those days people were used to disaster stories about expeditions. But they weren't used to things just disappearing." Bits and pieces of information eventually turned up, as - tragically and sometimes bizarrely - did bits and pieces of bodies. Over the years there has been a great deal of gory speculation regarding the contribution of cannibalism, botulism and lead poisoning to the fate of the expedition. But in the absence of compelling evidence, the theories about what really happened have remained just that: theories.
Three years ago, Murray and Cronin sailed through the Canadian archipelago, a jumbled chaos of ice and water which is sometimes land, sometimes sea and often a treacherous mixture of both, as part of the successful Irish Northwest Passage expedition. On a lonely island they found human remains - skull fragments and other pieces - which may have belonged to members of Franklin's expedition. Moved by the immediacy and poignancy of the experience, Murray and Cronin decided to go back and see what else they could find. "It's an incredibly bleak landscape which must have added to the total sense of isolation Franklin's men felt up there," says Murray.
"That's one of the things that strikes home again and again. You just look at these extraordinary flat horizons in all directions - and it's literally thousands of miles to a tree, let alone a settlement. When Franklin's crews abandoned the ships they were trying to walk out of the Arctic; and they hadn't the faintest chance. Due to cold, deprivation and scurvy most of them hadn't even a chance of getting 100 miles - they actually needed to walk for the best part of 1,800 miles."
In 2002, drawing on research by Woodman based on long-neglected Inuit tales of encounters with Franklin's trapped and abandoned ships, Murray and Cronin conducted magnetometer scans over a huge swathe of the Arctic seabed, looking for telltale signs of the 14-tonne iron steam engines and masses of metal cladding that covered the hulls of the Erebus and Terror.
"We've honed it down to an area of 150 square kilometres and we have six, seven, eight targets, one of which is quite interesting," says Murray. "But whether it's a ship . . ." He shrugs. "There's a lot of background magnetism up there. On the other hand, we could have a ship sitting perfectly intact on the seabed, under the ice, in 100 feet of water."
Murray's matter-of-fact tone makes the expedition sound like a weekend in Paris. In fact, just getting to the proposed wreck site is a logistical nightmare. First they'll have to fly all the way up to Yellowknife, on Great Slave Lake in Canada's Northern Territories. Then they have to find somebody who's willing to fly them further north still, to King William Island - a mini-expedition in itself which will set them back a minimum of €1,000. Finally, they face a day and a half or so of skidooing northwards across pack ice in temperatures which might be as low as minus 30 degrees. Which feels like? Murray makes a face. "It's when it gets warm that the problems start, really. Minus 20 is fine if it's nice and dry and cold; when it comes up to minus 10, or minus 5, everything starts to thaw and drip, but you can't dry it because the air is still freezing. That's when you get problems."
If they find signs of the Terror, of course, it will all be worth it. "Contemporary Inuit accounts say they saw the ship abandoned on the ice," explains Murray. "They went out to it, but couldn't get in, so they cut a hole in the side. Then they took some pieces of metal and wood, and left. When they came back in the spring the ship had sunk - only the tops of the masts were visible above the surface. Which is tremendous, from a wreck-hunter's point of view. It sank without getting smashed up by the ice, in 100 feet or so of water; the ice doesn't go down that deep around there, it's pack ice that freezes to 10 feet at the most; and it's one of the best environments in the world to preserve wooden ships. There are none of the marine organisms that normally eat their way through in a decade or two.
"You just don't find shipwrecks like that. We all have childhood fantasies about shipwrecks but mostly - with Armada wrecks, for example - what you find are piles of stones from the ballast, where the ships have disintegrated, and maybe a few cannons scattered about. We could have a ship sitting perfectly intact on the seabed with a small hole in the side. That's what we're hoping to find. Of course, if we do find it, it will be a whole different ball game." It would be - not to put too fine a point on it - a major discovery in exploration history. The Erebus and Terror were the shipping superstars of their day, feted veterans of Antarctic voyages before they set out for the Canadian Arctic.
But even if they don't find anything, Murray won't come home empty-handed. With the backing of TG4, Channel 5, BBC Australia, History Television Canada and others, he plans to make a film called The Lost Expedition, which will weave past and present into a story which, he says, has particularly rich resonances for an Irish audience. "Franklin's second-in-command, Crozier, was Irish; the guy who finally cracked the Northwest Passage was Irish and the guy who discovered remains of the Franklin expedition on Beechey Island was Irish. And there were lots of Irish crew members, ordinary sailors, as well. I think it's great that the initiative for this search has come from an Irish-Canadian expedition."
Adventure, then, is not dead - but what about romance? Would Murray describe his relationship with the Arctic as a passionate one? "Absolutely. It's an amazing place. I love places that are far from human interference, and one of the things about the Arctic is that it's not cluttered with stories. When you're travelling through the Northwest Passage, for instance, you get a sense that not many people have been there since Franklin's ships, and you have a very real connection with those people who went before. We usually camp in the shelter of a small, sandy sort of island and just go for a wander in the evenings. . ." He gets a faraway look in his eyes. Very far away.
John Murray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org