Irish-Canadian Franklin Search Expedition Report (2002)


2002 David C. Woodman



Executive Summary

The Irish-Canadian Franklin Search expedition was organized to continue the ongoing search for the shipwreck, presumably of one of the vessels of Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition, which had been reported in Inuit testimony as lying somewhere near the west coast of the Adelaide Peninsula (Utjulik). The search area of the 2002 expedition was largely defined by the testimony given to Charles Francis Hall (1869) and Frederick Schwatka (1879), supplemented by prior work conducted by the Canadian Armed Forces (Project Ootjoolik – 1992), surveys completed by the Canadian Coast Guard/Eco Nova (Franklin 150 - 1997), by the RCMP vessel Nadon (as part of the St. Roch II, Voyage of Rediscovery - 2000), and by the Utjulik 2001 expedition. These searches were based largely on research detailed in the book Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony (Woodman).

The 2002 expedition was primarily sponsored with private funds, however financial and logistical support was gratefully accepted from the Vancouver Maritime Museum, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and Scintrex. The field party was comprised mainly of veterans of the Utjulik 2001 survey. The team was again led by Captain Woodman who was accompanied by Ms. Amie Gibbins, Mr. Tom Gross, and Mr. Bill Robinson. Mr. Saul Aksalook of Gjoa Haven, who had also been on the 2001 team as a Ranger participant, was hired as chief guide for the party. The new members of the team were Mr. Kevin Cronin and film-maker John Murray.

The field party spent the period from May 6th to 20th in the Arctic, operating out of Gjoa Haven, Nunavut. In all the survey completed 1628 km of survey line at an average speed of 10 km/hr and covered 151 km2 of area. Analysis of the data collected eliminated five high-probability targets identified in 2001, retained two of those targets for later visual inspection, and located a further six high-priority magnetic anomalies with characteristics consistent with those expected from one of Franklin’s ships. Some traces of prior Caucasian occupation of the islet used for a base camp were also found.



Search rationale

The first intelligence of a wreck lying to the west of the Adelaide Peninsula was given to Captain (later Sir) Leopold McClintock in 1859. He was told that a vessel had been driven onto the western shore of "Ootloolik" which he believed to refer to the western shore of King William Island. He assiduously searched that coast without result – it was later confirmed that the Inuit term "Utjulik" referred to the peninsula to the south. The next report was relayed by Charles Francis Hall who reported that the ship was beset "very near O’Reilly Island a little eastward of the north end of said island." At a later date Hall had a native point out the position on a nautical chart and reported that the wreck was located "near O’Reilly Island, lat. 6830’N, long. 99." This latter identification is confusing as the modern O’Reilly Island lies somewhat to the south of the position given, which is approximately seven miles northwest of modern Grant Point near Kirkwall Island.

This uncertainty resulted in two possible wrecksites being identified – one near O’Reilly Island and another to the north near Grant Point. In 1967 some debris was found near O’Reilly Island which indicated that a wreck may lie nearby, while in 1997 some copper artifacts and a human skull which was determined to be of a young Caucasian male were found on a small islet immediately to the north of O’Reilly Island. These finds tended to support the southern site, however each was inconclusive as the normal drift in Queen Maud Gulf is toward the south. In addition the copper artifacts, which were certainly relics of the Franklin expedition, were not found in situ but were recovered from abandoned Inuit tentsites.  

The most detailed description of the wrecksite was given to the Schwatka expedition (1879). "Ikinnelikpatalok [told] of a big ship which was frozen in the ice near an island about five miles due west of Grant Point, on Adelaide Peninsula. They had to walk out about three miles on smooth ice to reach the ship (Gilder) ... [they found a dead man] in a large ship about eight miles off Grant Point … When the ship finally sank her masts stuck out of the water. (Schwatka)."

Although these accounts must be used with caution – the descriptions are obviously filtered through European lenses as the Inuit had no conception of either "west" or "miles" – they remain the most specific clues as to the wreck’s location on record. The Inuit accounts do give a good starting point (Grant Point) and provide some other clues ("near an island" – water depth < mast height), as well as offering hope that the wreck remains upright on the bottom and fairly well preserved (most of the shore debris later recovered consisted of boxes and small items). A chart accompanying Klutschak’s book confirmed that the ship sank near and to the west of an island due west of Grant Point.


Prior Work and Operational Plan

Franklin’s ships - the EREBUS and TERROR, were robustly built as bomb-ketches and heavily ice-strengthened for Antarctic and Arctic survey work. Traditional stories concerning the circumstances of the sinking of the ship at Utjulik indicated that there was minimum violence done to the vessel and fostered the hope that it would still be relatively intact on the bottom. The vessels were each supplied with large iron steam engines (approximately 15 tons, producing 20-25 horsepower), and were sheathed in iron sheeting around their bows. It was hoped that this amount of metal would make them susceptible to discovery by the local effect on the earth’s magnetic field.


Figure 1: Prior work, this entire area was surveyed by air (1992) and then by boat (1997 – blue, and 2000 - brown), and finally by snowmobile-drawn sled 2001 (blue tracks).


In 1992 an airborne magnetic survey of the Grant Pt. – Kirkwall Is. area had identified 61 magnetic targets – five of which were deemed to be "best priority" with another 20 or so "possibles." Three of these were investigated in 1993 with a through-ice sidescan sonar, without result. The seaborne surveys conducted in 1997 (magnetometer and sidescan sonar) and 2000 (forward-looking sonar) completed approximately 80 km2 of the entire 300 km2 search area but did not find any traces of the wreck. Realizing that the entire search area would take a decade to search at the rate allowed by boat expeditions, it was decided to return to magnetometer work to try to identify the location of the wreck. The Utjulik 2001 expedition spent eleven days conducting a sledborne magnetometer survey over the sea ice in the northern area and was successful in completing the planned search area between Grant Point and Kirkwall Is. at a line spacing of 200m. This survey confirmed the geological nature of most of the previously-identified targets and located a further seven high-priority targets requiring a future higher resolution look.