The long-sought shipwreck of the HMS Terror has reportedly been located, more than 160 years after it disappeared in the Canadian Arctic.
The discovery comes two years after the identification of Terror’s sister ship, the HMS Erebus. It’s hoped that the wrecks could illuminate the desperate end of Sir John Franklin’s mission to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. All 129 crew members from the polar expedition for British Royal Navy died after the ships became stranded in ice.
A team from the Arctic Research Foundation aboard the research vessel Martin Bergmann said they located the sunken ship last week in King William Island’s uncharted Terror Bay, according to The Guardian, which first reported the discovery. Over the weekend, the researchers sent a robotic vehicle underwater to explore the ship.
Video footage shows that the ship has been quite well preserved in frigid waters 80 feet below the surface—rope, an exhaust pipe, a mess-hall table, glass panes, wine bottles, the bell, and even the helm are intact.
Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation’s operations director, claimed there were still plates on the shelves in the food storage room. The research team believes the ship sank gently to the seafloor.
Parks Canada, the government agency that has been leading efforts to search for and explore Terror and Erebus, said that it is working with its partners to validate the details of the discovery. But the news was already being cheered by the community of shipwreck hunters and historians.
“Seeing the images of HMS Terror—her bowsprit still set, her bell, her railings, all in pristine order—feels as profound a moment as when a camera first passed over the bow of the Titanic,” Russell Potter, author of Finding Franklin: The Untold Story of a 165-Year Search, said in a statement given to mental_floss by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
“We’re witnesses to a discovery, the end result of a century and a half of searches, that will profoundly alter, augment—and doubtless complicate—our understanding of the final fate of the Franklin expedition,” Potter said.
The murky fate of the Franklin expedition has long captured the imagination of historians, amateur sleuths, and authors from Mark Twain to Margaret Atwood.
In May 1845, the crew left England aboard two ships, Erebus and Terror, in search of the Northwest Passage—a sea route that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific. The expedition then disappeared in the eastern Arctic Archipelago, touching off an exhaustive search.
In 1859, one of the several search parties funded by Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, found a message left in a cairn on Victory Point that hinted at what happened: Both ships had become trapped in ice in late 1846. Franklin died on June 11, 1847. The 105 remaining surviving crew members finally left their ice-choked ships on April 22, 1848, to try to reach a faraway trading post on foot. None of them were ever found alive.
Personal items and other relics abandoned the Franklin expedition were picked up by Inuit people and search parties over the next several decades. The dozens of artifacts include wooden toggles, teacups, spectacle lenses, and telescope lenses, many of which are now housed in the UK’s National Maritime Museum.
Inuit people who saw or came into contact with Franklin’s team also gave testimonies to the search parties. One account suggested Franklin’s men had resorted to cannibalism to survive, which fueled sensational headlines in England but was met with skepticism. In a study published in the International Journal of Osteoarcheology last year, scientists reexamined human remains from the Franklin expedition and found that the bones indeed had the signatures of late-stage cannibalism; they were cracked open and had “pot polishing,” an effect that occurs when bones are boiled to extract the marrow fat.
The final resting place of the ships had also been a mystery until recently. Two years ago, the Erebus was located using sonar, and divers have since pulled up artifacts from the sunken ship such as a ceramic ointment pot, belt buckles, glass window fragments, and a portion of the ship’s wheel.
“The fate of Franklin represents the greatest of all polar exploration mysteries,” said John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. “We all excitedly await the work of Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists as they now investigate the wreck of the Terror, together with Erebus.”
Primary and banner image: screenshot of helm from Arctic Research Foundation video