History Stories

Detailed images show the interiors of the HMS Terror, one of the two ships lost in a doomed Arctic expedition to find the Northwest Passage.

In the frigid waters off King William’s Island, in northern Canada, the wreck of a ship belonging to British explorer Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage, has been preserved nearly intact for more than 170 years.

The HMS Terror, one of two ships that left England with Franklin and 128 crew members in May 1845, was discovered in 2016, but hadn’t been systematically explored—until now.

In early August 2019, members of Canada’s parks service teamed with Inuit researchers to collect photos and video footage of the wreck using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV). According to a statement from Parks Canada, they were able to photograph 90 percent of the lower deck, including living quarters for the ship’s crew and the captain’s cabin.

The frigid temperature of the water (0 degrees Celsius or lower), layers of sediment and lack of natural light appear to have preserved the Terror in amazing detail. Beds and desks were still in place, as well as shelves stocked with plates, glasses and other dishware.

“The impression we witnessed when exploring the HMS Terror is of a ship only recently deserted by its crew, seemingly forgotten by the passage of time,” Ryan Harris, project director and ROV pilot, said in the statement.

Inside the captain’s cabin, which was the best preserved of all the lower deck, the team found a wealth of information about the expedition, including a tripod and two thermometers, as well as map cabinets with closed doors. According to Parks Canada, there is a “high probability” that written documents sealed within these areas of the ship will be preserved in a “near perfect” state by the unique environment of the wreck.

The captain’s sleeping quarters, sealed behind another closed door, is the only space on the lower deck the researchers did not manage to explore. With the new images and video footage, they hope to gain a better understanding of existing Inuit and historical accounts of the Franklin expedition, and possibly even trace the stories of the individual crew members.

The 59-year-old Franklin was already a celebrated explorer when he set off in search of the Northwest Passage—the fabled northern sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans—in 1845. After two whaling vessels spotted the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror en route from Greenland to Canada in July 1845, Franklin’s ships disappeared, along with all 129 men aboard.

In 1859, a note found stashed inside a rock cairn on King William Island provided the only written record of the expedition’s sad fate. Dated April 1848, it said that ice had trapped the Erebus and Terror in Victoria Strait in September 1846. The following spring, the crew had abandoned the ships and crossed the ice to Point Victory on King William Island. Franklin died in June 1847, the note recorded, but the surviving 105 officers and crew planned to trek overland to a fur-trading post, which was hundreds of miles away. 

They never made it.

In 2014, a research team from the Canadian government finally spotted the wreck of the HMS Erebus in the Victoria Strait near King William Island, resting upright only 35 feet below the surface. Two years later, the Terror was discovered in a bay about 45 miles away.

As reported by National Geographic, archaeologists hope the new images and video of the Terror will help them solve some of the many mysteries surrounding the Franklin expedition, including how the two ships ended up so far apart, and why and how they sunk. They also plan to excavate both wrecks further, suggesting more intriguing revelations may be yet to come. 

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