The Public Broadcasting Service’s NOVA documentary, Arctic Ghost Ship, aired in September of 2015. The show details the culmination of a six year, five hundred plus square mile search led by Parks Canada’s underwater archaeologists and the Arctic Research Foundation as the teams endeavor to solve a 170-year old mystery.
The show unfolds like a classic detective story, beginning with the scene setting. In 1845, an expedition was launched to explore the Victorian equivalent to the dark side of the moon: a polar expedition to find the fabled shortcut to the Orient, the Northwest Passage. A political expedition as much as a daring exploration to fill in the empty space on the map and mark it as part of the British Empire ensued. Sir John Franklin—a veteran of the arctic and an outstanding polar navigator who was experienced, tough, determined, and a great leader of men—set out with two specially adapted warships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, and 129 men for the frozen wilderness above the North American continent. It was the most ambitious and well-equipped expedition of its day: the ships’ hulls were strengthened with oak planking up to eight feet thick and reinforced with iron plate; incredible technological innovations for the era were added to the ship including central heating and a retractable propeller; and the ship was stocked with three years worth of food rations as well as a library and musical instruments. In July 1845, a whaling ship reported sighting the two ships in Baffin Bay. From there, the two ships and her crews sailed into oblivion and into mystery.
Over a century and a half later, the mystery is still being solved. The documentary begins at the end of the summer of 2014, joining a team of wreck hunters working from ice breakers as they scour the sea floor with sonar equipment seeking these arctic ghosts. Even with today’s equipment and technology, these modern explorers battle the same challenging environment Franklin and his crew did: an ever-changing polar sea which can freeze over completely within a matter of days. Armed with a precision piece of military hardware called the Arctic Explorer, which uses sonar to scan a square mile of sea floor every hour, the team sets out in a narrowing window of time following a meager trail of clues to answer the questions of why the expedition failed, how far they managed to get through the Northwest Passage, and what happened to the men of the Franklin expedition.
In 1847, after two years with no word from her husband, Lady Jane Franklin pressured the English authorities to launch a rescue mission for her husband and his crew. In 1850, a joint search mission between the Americans and the British turned up the first chilling clue: the graves of three sailors on Beechey Island who died during the first winter of the expedition. The crew was only six months out of Britain, and one grave was marked with an ominous quote from the bible. In 1859, the next clue was found on King William Island, four hundred miles south of the graves on Beechey Island. In a stone cairn, men of the expedition had left a single handwritten note that is now held at the National Maritime Museum in London. The note explains the expedition’s progress up to their second winter and ends with the words “All well.” But scrawled around the edges of the paper, is a second note, written a year later by the captain of the HMS Terror, Sir Francis Crozier. Franklin, along with nine officers and fifteen sailors, was dead. Rather than breaking up, the sea ice remained frozen solid throughout the summer of 1847, and the ships were trapped. With 105 ailing men now under his command, he ordered the men to abandon the ships and march south toward the nearest British trading post, a daunting trek of over a thousand miles.
The modern day team follows these enigmatic clues, using the coordinates in Crozier’s note as the basis for their northern search zone. Ice core data shows that the Franklin expedition coincided with a period of at least thirty years of especially frigid conditions, the least favorable time in the last seven hundred years for an arctic expedition. The expedition was doomed by nature even before it began. The scientists are embroiled in a cat and mouse game with the ice and soon abandon their northern search to head south, where they follow the final clues: eye witness accounts preserved by Inuit oral tradition, stories that tell of starvation, grueling survival, cannibalism, and of one ship crushed and sunk and another intact one hundred miles south but locked in ice.
Following these meager clues, in the fall of 2014 the scientists find the remains of a ship within an islet of small barrier islands, reefs, and shoals—where the Inuit legends spoke of the ship still locked in ice. Only thirty-six feet below the surface, in a murky, frigid grave lay the hull of the HMS Erebus, Franklin’s flagship. While part of the mystery has been solved, the find also begs more questions: How did the Erebus arrive in this protective pocket? Could it have been driven there by the wind? Or is it possible that the weakened remaining few of the expedition found the ship along their trek and inadvertently bridged the gap in the map and completed the link in the Northwest Passage?
The documentary transitions seamlessly from past to present, building the narrative of the expedition and the haunting clues left behind, weaving history with the modern endeavor to solve the 170-year old mystery. There is a slight, nonpolitical commentary on global warming as it relates to the ice in the arctic, and a stellar score highlights the intrigue, excitement, horror, and anticipation. At the time the documentary aired, the second ship in the expedition had not been found, but in September of 2016, the Arctic Research Foundation announced that the HMS Terror was found south of King William Island.
Arctic Ghost Ship is a gripping, harrowing exploration of a doomed expedition and a daunting but determined modern day search for answers. Like the hulls preserved in their frigid graves, the PBS documentary is a monument to exploration—modern and historical—and to the sacrifice of all 129 men of Franklin’s lost expedition.
Highly recommended for fans of documentaries, particularly documentaries focused on the archaeological effort to solve the mystery of maritime disasters and lost polar expeditions