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Marine archeologists raise a musket from the HMS Investigator this past July. The ship, which sank around 1854, was discovered last summer in Mercy Bay, just off the coast of Banks Island. - photo courtesy of Brett Seymour (U.S. National Parks Service and Parks Canada)

Exploring the HMS Investigator, 160 years later
Parks Canada crews diving in Mercy Bay shed light on the 19th century life of Royal Navy Officers

Nathalie Heiberg-Harrison
Northern News Services
Published Monday, September 12, 2011

Banks Island
Ryan Harris remembers the day Parks Canada discovered the HMS Investigator in Mercy Bay, off the coast of Banks Island, excruciatingly well.

NNSL photo/graphic

A marine archeologist swims over the bow of the HMS Investigator in July. The ship, which sank around 1854, was discovered last summer in Mercy Bay, just off the coast of Banks Island. - photo courtesy of Brett Seymour (U.S. National Parks Service and Parks Canada)

NNSL photo/graphic

Artifacts recovered from the HMS Investigator, from left to right, a wooden horn cleat, a copper alloy bolt, a leather shoe and a double-sheave pulley block for rigging. - photo courtesy of Louis Barnes (Parks Canada)

The water was clear, like a fish tank, and the 36-metre long ship that had been lost for nearly 160 years sat just eight metres below the surface.

"It was tantalizingly close," said Harris, a senior marine archeologist with Parks Canada, of the discovery on July 25, 2010.

But the crew hadn't expected the find to come so easily and just had sonar equipment, not wetsuits nor oxygen tanks, so they weren't able to get any closer.

On July 13 of this year, after gathering a team of 11, packing up scuba gear, two boats, fuel and video cameras, travelling by Twin Otter and then helicopter 850 km north of the Arctic circle, Harris finally realized his dream.

"The first close-up experience with the site was probably something I'll always remember. When we first made our way along the sea floor and the site was looming in the haze, it's really quite an impressive experience to come across a shipwreck in that environment," he said.

"It's really enthralling to be able to experience it first hand, to really hover over the deck where some agonizing decisions were made by McClure and the officers that would influence their survival."

For 10 days the team worked uninterrupted, often diving until 3 a.m. under the midnight sun, to explore the ship abandoned in 1853 by Robert McClure and its crew after being trapped in the ice.

Harris and his team made a total of 105 dives, recovered 16 artifacts - including a musket, shoe and pieces of the ship's rigging - and took dozens of samples for scientific analysis.

"We weren't really expecting to come across so much lying right on the top of the wreck site," he said.

They were also hoping to put a camera below deck, but found it filled with sediment, which Harris said is positive for preservation.

"We readily expect that there could be thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of very well-preserved artifacts inside this ship," he said.

There are no concrete plans to revisit the site, but the crew will be kept busy analyzing their samples and sonar images for months.

Harris said he hopes they can discover more about the life of a Royal Navy Officer in the mid-19th century and maybe even be able to say decisively whether any Copper Inuit ever stepped foot on the ship.

In response to suggestions the HMS Investigator should be removed from the water and showcased to the public, Harris said the undertaking would be complex, expensive and risky.

"It's in its element," he said.

"It would look really, really out of place anywhere else.

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