STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Researchers think they've solved one of the great mysteries of the Arctic. They discovered one of two ships that vanished in 1845. Those two ships formed an expedition from England led by Sir John Franklin. Franklin was seeking the Northwest Passage, some way to travel from Atlantic to Pacific over the top of the world.
PAUL WATSON: It was like a modern moon shot.
INSKEEP: That's Paul Watson, a columnist for the Toronto Star. We reached him by satellite phone on board a Canadian Coast Guard Icebreaker in the Arctic. He's in the waters that Sir John Franklin's ships tried to pass through in the 1840s.
WATSON: There was so much public expectation, and there was so much riding on it, personal reputations, even social stature. If you could complete the Northwest Passage, you were effectively, you know, the first man on the moon.
INSKEEP: Franklin's ships departed and never came back. Not one member of the crews made it out, though desperate searches found enough evidence to indicate that the ships were trapped in ice. Since 2008, Canada's government has been searching again using sonar to map the ocean floor. Finally a helicopter pilot found a clue while on the shore of an Arctic island.
WATSON: The helicopter pilot was walking the shoreline with a shotgun slung over his shoulder because his job is to watch for polar bears, and he spotted something leaning against a rock. And it was a large, iron object, about 17 inches long. And he called the archaeologists over.
INSKEEP: The archaeologists quickly recognized this object as a small winch, used to lower small boats into the water from a larger ship. And apparently this winch was a piece of one of Sir John Franklin's ships. An underwater search nearby from the rest of the ship. And Watson says searchers sent down a submarine with a video camera.
WATSON: It's chilling really to look at it. The ship is almost completely intact. The only thing that's missing is her three masts, which presumably had been sheared off by moving ice over the years. But, you know, there are a few planks missing from the deck, but it all seems to look like an intact vessel. And there are a couple of what they believe are bronze cannons lying next to her and then other debris scattered about.
INSKEEP: How could it be intact after all these years? Is the cold water that preserved it?
WATSON: That's right, and here, to me, is the most amazing part of it. Way back in the 19th century, when so many expeditions came from Britain and also America to try to find Erebus and Terror, they interviewed Inuit hunters, people who had traveled widely in the area, and asked them what they knew. And there were consistent stories of essentially a ghost ship which had floated on ice southward and separated from where the two ships had been abandoned, imprisoned in ice. And some Inuits said that this ghost ship had been boarded, and they described what they saw in there. It was dark, but at least one person described seeing a heavy, white man who was dead of course, but who had large teeth, which some have interpreted as being a sign of scurvy.
INSKEEP: Oh, because the gums retreat and the teeth look larger, right?
WATSON: And I think people called scurvy smile because, precisely that, the gums retract. You know, some experts took this testimony seriously. Others dismissed it. Well, this is now proof that they were telling the truth and telling it in very good detail.
So in fact these two ships did separate. Now, whether the other one is still in the Northern area where the point of abandonment was - because in 1847 one of the officers wrote a note in ink and sealed it in a tin can which gave a pretty approximate location of the two ships, where they had been left. Presumably the other one is still up there. But if one came down by ice, maybe the other one did, too. They need to figure this out.
INSKEEP: Now, you have recounted along the way one chilling detail after another of this story. You've described ships trapped in ice, of a crew having to abandon their ships, of people leaving notes in a tin can as they moved across the Arctic landscape. So a vital point in the story, I suppose, was that moment when they had to decide to abandon ship. The choice being either you wait with the ship and hope it gets out of the ice some season, or you leave that ship behind and put yourself in extreme peril on the Arctic ice.
WATSON: That's right, and, you know, I've been on this icebreaker for a couple of weeks. So you have time to speak to archaeologists and others who know this story intimately. And they describe, you know, now-confirmed accounts of seamen holding large boats over the ice. And, you know, you might get a couple of miles a day, and you could have just imagined it was - clearly things have warmed since then. But clearly they were in some of the worst Arctic weather you can imagine, hungry, starving, dying, pulling boats over ice where you come up against 40-foot ridges formed by large ice floats pressing together. It just must've been one very long nightmare.
INSKEEP: So these men died while seeking the Northwest Passage, which you mentioned was such a great goal in their era and so difficult to find. Has the climate changed enough that the Northwest Passage is now pretty obvious and easy most of the year?
WATSON: Well, that's an interesting point. Over the last few summers, it was almost ice-free. So there's this phenomenon now of adventure yachtsmen who have come up thinking, based on pictures that they saw from previous seasons, that it's relatively easy to sail the Northwest Passage, you know, in a small sailing yacht. But this year, the ice is back, and now a number of them are stuck.
INSKEEP: The Arctic still has some bite.
WATSON: That is for sure. And, you know, just as a member of the civilization, that gives me some heart because there are still places on this planet where Mother Nature decides.
INSKEEP: Paul Watson is a columnist with the Toronto Star. Thanks very much for talking with us.
WATSON: Thank you for having me.
INSKEEP: Paul Watson spoke with us from onboard a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker. He's not that far from the spot where researchers found one of the ships from the Franklin expedition which went missing in the Canadian Arctic 169 years ago. They were searching for the Northwest Passage.
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