In 1845, when Arctic explorer Captain Sir John Franklin set off from England in search of the Northwest Passage, the 59-year-old explorer already had several high-profile, daring missions under his belt. But, though his ships were state-of-the-art, this journey would prove to be different. Franklin's two ships, the H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror, disappeared, along with with all 128 men on board.
The ships presumably had hit sea ice and sunk, but no one could ever say for sure. As Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper told CBC News, what became of Franklin and his crew has remained "one of Canada's greatest mysteries."
Now, Franklin's two ships have been found, and they offer tantalizing details about the explorer's fate and final days. A remotely operated vehicle deployed by Parks Canada returned from a mission near Nunavut's King William Island with sonar images depicting a "largely intact ship," National Geographic reports. Experts believe that ship is either the Erebus or the Terror.
The freezing waters, National Geographic continues, might very well have preserved some of the crew's documents and diaries, which could offer first-hand accounts of what befell the expedition. Until now, only vague hints—an Inuit who said he saw one of the ships sink, a few graves containing chipped bones, possibly indicating cannibalism—have been available.
"The Inuit have said for generations that one of their hunters saw a ship in that part of the passage, abandoned and ended up wrecking…. It's exactly where this guy said it was," CBC chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge told CBC News. "Finding the first vessel will no doubt provide the momentum — or wind in our sails — necessary to locate its sister ship and find out even more about what happened to the Franklin expedition’s crew."