For more than 170 years, the HMS Terror rested beneath the frigid waters of the Canadian Arctic Ocean holding the secrets to an infamously fatal expedition — until a sunny day earlier this month, when a little robot plunged into the sea to try to find them.
On a cable, Canadian and Inuit researchers guided it to the shipwreck and below the deck, eager to see what the remote-controlled underwater vehicle might find. It would mark the first major exploration of the doomed ship since dozens of men abandoned it after it became trapped in ice during a dangerous 1845 mission to chart the Northwest Passage. There were no survivors, and both the Terror and its sister ship, the HMS Erebus, disappeared beneath the icy surface, where they would stay until 2014 and 2016, when each ship was discovered.
Now, the Inuit and Canadian governments announced Wednesday, researchers are a step closer to unraveling the enduring mystery of the disasters: Inside the HMS Terror, the robot-like underwater explorer found a ship so well preserved that its artifacts seemed to be “essentially frozen in time,” Parks Canada said.
“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, a Parks Canada archaeologist who piloted the remote-controlled underwater vehicle, said in a statement.
Inside the ship, glass plates were still stacked neatly on shelves. Wine bottles and jugs encased in silt still stood upright in wooden niches and rifles still hung on the walls, encased in rust. In the ship’s 20 separate rooms, drawers in the dressers and desks were still tightly shut — the most tantalizing discovery in the eyes of the archaeologists.
That’s where they believe they’ll find any surviving journals, logs and maps, possibly illuminating the entire expedition.
Harris said they anticipate the coveted documents could be preserved beneath heaps of protective sediment, fixed in place thanks to the frigid temperatures.
“Those blankets of sediment, together with the cold water and darkness, create a near perfect anaerobic environment that’s ideal for preserving delicate organics such as textiles or paper,” Harris told National Geographic. “There is a very high probability of finding clothing or documents, some of them possibly even still legible. Rolled or folded charts in the captain’s map cupboard, for example, could well have survived.”
Until the Erebus was discovered in 2014 and the Terror two years later, explorers and indigenous people spent generations trying to piece together the catastrophe. Inuits had passed down a trail of disturbing oral histories about the ailing white men who came ashore like Arctic refugees, succumbing to exposure, starvation and even, possibly, cannibalism. Numerous Western-led expeditions ultimately recovered some crew members’ remains, but never the ships.
For decades, the only record ever found from the expedition was a single succinct note dated April 1848, scrawled in a shaky hand on a scrap of paper. Capt. Francis Crozier left it behind inside a stony cairn on King William Island before all the crew members perished. He said 105 souls had deserted the Terror and Erebus and that 24 were already dead, including the expedition’s previous leader, Sir John Franklin. They abandoned their belongings in the cairn and headed toward a river, and were never heard from again.
“A sad tale was never told in fewer words,” wrote the British explorer who discovered the note in 1859.
The details were left to history. The Intuit knowledge — or Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, the culture’s oral histories — was perhaps the most complete collection of firsthand accounts to survive over the decades, some of which was recorded in the 1850s and 1860s. And so when Parks Canada set out again in search of the shipwrecks in the late 2000s, Inuit researchers led the way.
In 2014, the Erebus was found in almost the exact spot that Inuit testimony placed it, National Geographic reported. Two years later, an Inuit hunter from a settlement on King William Island led archaeologists to the Terror. It was aptly discovered in Terror Bay, which had been named in memory of the lost ship.
The hunter, Sammy Kogvik, told a remarkable story to lead them there, as The Washington Post previously reported. Several years before finding the ship, he said he and a friend were riding snowmobiles on their way to go fishing when they saw a large wooden pole jutting out of the ice over Terror Bay — a ship mast. Kogvik snapped a picture with it, but lost the camera on his way home. He didn’t go looking for the site again until he boarded a vessel with the Arctic Research Foundation in 2016, assisting in the search. When the crew heard his story, they headed straight for Terror Bay.
“The tall mast could have been sitting meters out of the water for the past 150 years,” the CEO of Arctic Research Foundation, Adrian Schimnowski, told National Geographic in 2016.
As part of a recent agreement, the Inuit and Canadian governments will share ownership of the artifacts. They’ll move forward as partners during future excavations — but it could be a while, given the dives require just the right conditions.
Parks Canada said the archaeological team was fortunate to find “exceptional conditions” earlier this month. The water was calm and clear, ideal for the remote-controlled underwater vehicle, or ROV, and the team’s 3-D mapmaking technology. On Aug. 7, a team of divers guided the ROV to the Terror, now home to colonies of sea anemones and marine life. They explored for seven days, diving into the bitingly cold water for short periods at a time.
Harris said that the only area on the lower deck that was inaccessible to the ROV was the captain’s quarters. Divers peered through the window from outside the ship, shining a flashlight. Inside, they saw an intact desk and an arm chair buried in two feet of sediment. A tripod rested on the shelf, along with a pair of thermometers. Map cabinets were shut tight.
Of all 20 rooms on the ship, Harris said, Crozier’s door was the only one that was closed.
“I’d love to know what’s in there,” he told National Geographic.