The shipwreck hunter (Page 1 of 2)
The lost ships of the Franklin Expedition remain hidden treasures and the hunt is set to continue this summer. Meet Ryan Harris, the person who’s leading the search, and likely to be the first to set his eyes on the prize.
By Mark Anderson
|Underwater archeologist Ryan Harris circles the Investigator, a British ship lost during its search for the Franklin vessels. (Photo: Brett Seymour/Parks Canada/U.S. National Parks Service)
It’s a cold and blustery April evening in Toronto,
but behind the doors of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club it’s
all fireplace-warm and alive with the soft rustle of tailored suits
and tinkling champagne glasses. The annual heritage dinner
is a gala affair, replete with a four-course dinner and all the
nautical tradition and ceremony expected of a 165-year-old
sailing club. Tonight, though, there’s an added element of
excitement in the air, because the evening’s guest speaker is
Ryan Harris. For the last five years, Harris has directed the
search for the lost ships of the Franklin Expedition, the twin
Grails of Canadian Arctic exploration.
Jointly named a national historic site in 1992, the wrecks
of the HMS Erebus
and HMS Terror
have been searched for,
on and off, for 160 years, ever since they became trapped in
the unforgiving ice of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago near
King William Island in 1848. What happened to the ships,
where they ended up and how the officers and crew spent
their final agonizing days are enduring mysteries.
As for the mystery of how a 35-year-old underwater
archeologist was chosen to lead Parks Canada’s search for
the country’s most important marine artifacts, that becomes
clearer the moment Harris steps to the microphone.
The Franklin Expedition, he tells his rapt audience, was
about more than charting a Northwest Passage: it was to be
a further, perhaps final, proof that 19th-century humans,
equipped with the latest in scientific knowledge and human
ingenuity, could defy and transcend nature even at her
fiercest. When the Arctic ice put the lie to these notions,
crushing both man and machine with indifferent ease, it
came as a deep psychological blow to Victorian sensibilities.
“Franklin set out from England amid great fanfare, with
a hand-picked crew and these two sublimely equipped
ships … and yet it all unravelled horrifically; it all came
undone and descended into cannibalism and ultimate
depravity,” says Harris. “In this sense, it’s a classic Victorian
Gothic horror story, a story of ghost ships. And really, the
interest in the Franklin Expedition has never abated since.”
Tall, wiry and athletic, Harris looks younger than his now
41 years, and radiates energy and authority. For the next 40
minutes, he talks steadily and without notes, demonstrating
his encyclopedic knowledge of all things Franklin, and outlining
his five-year effort to find the expedition’s lost ships.
Harris departs the stage to a standing ovation.
For Canadians interested in marine archeology, there’s
really only one place to work: Parks Canada’s elite Underwater Archaeology Service. Calgary-born Harris set his sights on
joining the eight-member team as far back as the mid-1990s, while doing his master’s degree in maritime history
and nautical archeology at East Carolina University, in
Greenville, North Carolina. For someone with a passion
for history and diving, it was a logical career choice, but it
wouldn’t come easily. As the team’s chief, Marc-André
Bernier, explains, the unique demands on Parks Canada
divers — the ability to work in challenging conditions, diving in freezing waters with limited visibility and high
currents — are not for everyone. Moreover, since divers
rely on one another for their safety and live together in
cramped research vessels often for weeks at a time, potential
recruits are vetted extremely carefully. “We’re a small
team, and there’s not a lot of turnover,” says Bernier.
“When we take on new staff, the expectation is that they
will be with us for life.”
Any misgivings Bernier may have had back in 1998 upon
welcoming an untested 25-year-old intern into the team’s
close ranks were promptly dispelled, however, as Harris
quickly won the team over. “From the beginning, he was
very good,” recalls Bernier. “He has a good research mind,
an excellent practical mind and is an outstanding diver.
He’s very well versed in the construction of historic sailing
ships, he’s an expert in remote sensing technology and he
brings skills from virtually every area of the field. As an underwater archeologist, he’s as close as you get to the
Over the next decade, Harris would participate in dozens
of marine archeological searches, including exploring the
War of 1812 shipwrecks Hamilton and Scourge in Lake
Ontario, discovering 16th-century Basque whaling vessels
in Red Bay, Labrador, and aiding the recovery mission of
the remains of an American aircraft and pilot that had
crashed and sunk in the St. Lawrence River during the
Second World War.