• Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada/R9266-757
    Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada/R9266-757

Locate the HMS Investigator discovery site (Map: Steven Fick/Canadian Geographic)

The sun was high in the Arctic sky, the air a balmy 20°C. On July 24, 2010, Ryan Harris, a senior marine archaeologist with Parks Canada, decided to take advantage of an ephemeral lead through the floating ice off the remote north shore of Banks Island, N.W.T., part of Aulavik National Park, more than 800 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

Based on old charts and journals, Harris had more than an inkling of where HMS Investigator might have been abandoned in 1853 during its search for survivors of the ill-fated Franklin expedition. In the intervening years, however, the ship could have drifted anywhere throughout 23-kilometre-long Mercy Bay or out of the bay entirely.

After inflating a Zodiac, Harris and two members of his team pushed off from shore. Something interesting appeared on the sonar monitor almost immediately. Reining in his initial excitement, Harris calmly directed his colleagues to make a few more passes over the target. They had come prepared to search for 14 hours a day, two weeks straight. Now, within three minutes of beginning their scan, they had discovered the 36-metre barque resting on the bottom of the bay, her upper deck a mere eight metres from the surface. “I just couldn’t believe it came that quickly,” says Harris.

Although Captain Robert McClure and his Investigator crew had failed to find any survivors from the Franklin expedition, they were the first Europeans to make contact with the local Inuit, the first to circumnavigate the Americas and the first to find and cross the final link of the Northwest Passage. But their story was quickly forgotten in the wake of the Franklin disaster and the Investigator was last seen by European eyes 157 years ago.

Despite the regular assault of shifting ice, the ship’s hull remains remarkably intact. “It’s an extraordinary wreck site,” says Harris. “For any shipwreck from the 19th century in an ocean environment, this is a remarkable level of preservation.”

Harris’s colleagues set about inspecting the remains of cache sites along the barren shore, finding coal, barrel straps, cans of food, gun flint, lead shot and leather boots. Eventually, a magnetometer survey revealed three unmarked “anomalies” abreast of one another, each about two metres long, and — in keeping with Anglican tradition — properly aligned toward Jerusalem. Scars in the permafrost, made by gravediggers more than a century and a half ago, could clearly be seen. These and the still mounded earth indicate that what lies beneath likely remains intact.

Following this solemn discovery, the archaeologists retired to their tents at 2 a.m., stretching out in sleeping bags barely 30 metres from the graves. Time was running out, but their work had just begun. Unlike those fallen British sailors, who saw this bay as the scene of their inevitable doom, these new investigators were counting the days until their return.

Vancouver writer Brian Payton is the author of The Ice Passage: A True Story of Ambition, Disaster, and Endurance in the Arctic Wilderness.