Travel Story Perfect timing for frozen HMS Terror find

HMS Erebus Canada stamp
Photo of Stephen Scourfield

The fate of expedition ship HMS Terror, lost 170 years ago while seeking the Northwest Passage, has gripped imaginations for generations.

In a bizarre moment, just as I am near the spot in the Arctic, it’s announced the Franklin expedition ship HMS Terror has been found. The vessel is believed to have been trapped in ice while seeking the Northwest Passage. The exact date of its stranding is unknown but the news comes close to its 170th anniversary.

I am heading north through Arctic waters with Adventure Canada on Ocean Endeavour as the news breaks: the Arctic Research Foundation has found explorer Sir John Franklin’s ship in pristine condition at the bottom of a bay off King William Island. HMS Terror is frozen in time, just as it was frozen in the ice, along with HMS Erebus, which Franklin personally commanded, in September 1846.

Even the topnotch Adventure Canada couldn’t have banked on a coincidence quite so profound for its Out of the Northwest Passage voyage. For today is September 12 and we are just south of King William Island.

And to our south is the wreck of the Franklin expedition’s ship HMS Erebus, which was found in 2014.

I set my alarm for 3am, and get up in the icy night. I cup my hands round the warm mug of tea and huddle with others as, at 3.15am, we cross an invisible line between two wreck sites.

The ships are both found now, and we are here, in this moment.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had last been seen entering Baffin Bay in August 1845 as Sir John Franklin searched for the Northwest Passage — a legendary route explorers had been searching for since before 1500, hoping for a faster trading route between Europe and Asia.

The ships became icebound and were abandoned by their crew, all 129 of whom died despite expeditions being sent to search for them.

The loss of the Franklin expedition prompted one of biggest searches in history, from 1848-1859. For generations, the mystery of their disappearance has gripped imaginations, partly because it has been unknown precisely what happened. (They've even featured on postage stamps, as pictured above.) 

It is one of the backdrops of this expedition, which visits many of the sites as it cruises through the waters of Arctic Canada and Greenland’s coast.

Jason Edmunds, Adventure Canada’s expedition leader and the first Inuit man to lead such a trip, announced the find over the ship’s speaker system.

It is 170 years since HMS Terror was lost and two years and a day after Canadian maritime archaeologists found the wreck of HMS Erebus in the same eastern area of Queen Maud Gulf.

Rather appropriately, they found HMS Terror in Terror Bay, concluding a search that had begun in 1848. At the end of the announcement, Jason adds: “You’d have thought they’d have looked there first.”

Stephen Scourfield is aboard Ocean Endeavour as a guest of Adventure Canada. adventurecanada.com.

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