The One Ocean Expedition Voyager passed the night in a controlled drift a few kilometres northwest of the Royal Geographical Society Islands, positioned just south of the rim of the ice pack in Victoria Strait. Whether to skirt, break, or wait on that long white crust to crack has been the prevailing question. Nevertheless, even as Parks Canada, The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the other Victoria Strait Expedition partners discussed it, both their search technology and the teams controlling it were primed, and target zones south of the ice are being scanned and charted.
Defence Research and Development Canada’s yellow autonomous underwater vehicle Arctic Explorer (a.k.a. Baby Louie), stowed on and operated from the Voyager, was tested successfully on August 31 in open water near Jenny Lind Island. The same night, the Kinglet and Gannet, Canadian Hydrographic Service survey boats, were deployed from the CCGS icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier to explore the southern edge of the northern search area, in Alexandra Strait, after which it was decided to fall back.
Since then, the Laurier has focused on the southern search area, in and around the open water of Wilmot and Crampton Bay, west of the Adelaide Peninsula. Nearby is the Arctic Research Foundation’s research vessel Martin Bergmann and Parks Canada’s smaller Investigator, which since being deployed from the Laurier has been conducting side-scanning surveys.
“At the moment we’re on our own at the southern edge of Victoria Strait,” says John Geiger, the RCGS’s Head of Expedition and CEO. “With a little cooperation from the ice, and perhaps an icebreaker at some point, we hope to continue moving north into the primary target area.”
Meanwhile as the Voyager nudges into Victoria Strait, first-year ice still stands between the vessel and the principal search zone, though perhaps not for long. It’s shifting and diminishing with each passing day, especially in the region west and northwest of King William Island — the very slice of the strait thought to contain the Erebus and (or) Terror’s April 1848 point of abandonment.
“Things are changing,” says Marc-André Bernier, chief of Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeological Service. “Even while the Voyager was transiting from the east side of Somerset Island three days ago, the biggest mass of ice in Victoria Strait [now attached to the east coast of Victoria Island] was hugging the west side of King William Island, covering much more of the primary search area.”
According to Tom Zagon, a research scientist with the Canadian Ice Service, ice clearing in the region is behind the average, based on 30-year climate records. “But,” he adds, “most of the ice in the area is first-year ice, and it’s rotten, meaning that it’s close to disintegrating.”
Wind will play a crucial role in the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition over the next few days, accelerating ice breakup and dispersal through one channel or another, depending on its direction and speed. “It’s nice to see winds at 25 to 35 knots,” says Ted Kennedy, ice pilot on the Voyager. “Strong winds like that were blowing through Lancaster Sound a few days ago, and we saw real movement there.” (Winds of 25 knots have been forecast for September 3 or 4, but as anyone familiar with capricious Arctic weather can vouch, it’s apt to change from one moment to the next.)
For now the Franklin search party aboard the Voyager will scour the southern region of Victoria Strait while monitoring the floe edge to the north. As Bernier points out, the bounds set for the primary search area — a tidy rectangle tilted along the west coast of King William Island — are somewhat arbitrary. For instance, Zagon’s research has shown that while ice flows south through Alexandra Strait much of the time, it’s also shifts west, catching currents between the Royal Geographical Society Islands and Victoria Island. That means there’s a chance one of Franklin’s ships, or a trail of debris leading to one of them, could be in the vicinity, but outside the defined search box. “Like so much of Victoria Strait, the area northwest of the Royal Geographical Society Islands has never been charted,” Bernier says.
Add to that the testimony of Richard Collinson, captain of the HMS Enterprise on the 1850 Franklin search expedition, who claimed to have found timber from the Erebus and Terror on the west side of Victoria Strait (washed up on nearby Victoria Island in 1853), and you have what Bernier calls a “probability area.”
“It’s a chess game that we’re playing,” he says. “We’re going to get in good position, study the conditions and feel it out. We’ve worked with the AUV team to determine when and where they can start scanning, and we will launch a mission this morning [September 2]. We’re going ship hunting today.”