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On the hunt for Franklin’s ships

Search: The Kraken sonar system is integrated into the Arctic Explorer AUV. - Photo contributed
Search: The Kraken sonar system is integrated into the Arctic Explorer AUV.
— image credit: Photo contributed

David Shea is looking to help solve one of Canada’s longest standing mysteries.

The former Salmon Arm resident, who now lives and works in Conception Bay, Nfld., is currently in the Arctic as part of a team attempting to locate the historic ships of the ill-fated 1845 Franklin Expedition.

Shea, who graduated from Salmon Arm Secondary in 2003, is the engineering manager for Kraken Sonar Systems, a company which uses state-of-the-art underwater sonar to scan and map the Arctic seabed and possibly find evidence of Franklin’s lost ships.

“It will be amazing getting to see an area of the word that literally no one has ever seen before, and possibly contribute to finding evidence of one of the most famous shipwrecks of all time,” says Shea of the sonar images that will be coming up from the sea bottom.

The annual hunt, which began in 2008, is looking for remnants of Sir John Franklin’s ships, the HMA Erebus and the HMS Terror. Both set sail in 1845 in the hopes of charting a route through the Northwest Passage, but none of the 128 men on board ever returned.

Dubbed the 2014 Victoria Straight expedition, it is the Canadian government’s most ambitious endeavour to date in terms of both finding historic evidence of the lost explorer’s voyage and in mapping uncharted areas of the Arctic sea floor. It is a collaboration of Parks Canada, Defence Research Development Canada and other private and non-profit organizations and will include four ships – the Canadian Coast Guard’s CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Kingston, the Arctic Research Foundation’s research vessel Martin Bergmann, and One Ocean Expeditions’ One Ocean Voyager.

An autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) known as the Arctic Explorer, equipped with Kraken Sonar’s ultra high-resolution sonar, will conduct a series of experiments testing the sonar in extremely low water temperatures.

Shea explains that cameras are relatively useless in those conditions for mapping, as they can only see a short distance and are useless in sea conditions where there is little to no light and sediment, which can obscure images. While an underwater camera could get an image up to five square metres, the Kraken sonar components can produce an image of 600 square metres.

The sonar is of the same type that is being used in the search for MH370, the Malaysia Airlines jet that went down March 8.

Shea says contrary to popular notions of finding a shipwreck,  Franklin’s ships are not going to be found simply lying at the bottom like the Titanic.

“These ships are 150 years old and were built with wooden hulls, with a bit of metal plating; plus, they were trapped in the ice and likely crushed, so we are looking for small pieces, not anything that is going to resemble an actual ship,” says Shea. He notes another disadvantage is that the Terror and Erebus were exploration, not war ships, so there won’t be metal components like cannons that might have lasted longer in the frigid waters.

Shea was invited to participate in the mission as he helped to design the system and is very familiar with its operation. He will help deal with any issues that may result due to the extreme depths and low temperatures. If the sonar locates anything, then other members of the expedition crew would be called to action.

“We will mark what we find, and then another underwater vessel would attempt to retrieve it for the archeologists to study.”

Shea says he and his colleagues joke about the search being akin to looking for a needle in the haystack – without knowing where the haystack is.

As part of the 2014 Search for Franklin Expedition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spent two nights with expedition members on the HMCS Kingston, travelling from Pond Inlet to Arctic Bay in Nunavut. Harper participated in the testing of one of the remotely operated underwater vehicles which included the Kraken advanced sonar components.

The expedition is expected to last for two weeks.

 

 

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