By Mike Foster
Last April, Marc-André Bernier slid into frigid Arctic waters through an ice hole as part of his ongoing quest to unravel the secrets of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.
Bernier (BA ʼ86 and MA ʼ90, Classical Studies), Parks Canada’s chief underwater archeologist, says the water was crystal clear. Powerful lights shone down on the wreck of the HMS Erebus, lying on the seafloor of Queen Maud Gulf.
“It was spectacular. I went down through a layer of ice that was higher than I am. Then all you see is white vastness,” says Bernier. “Usually the dives were about an hour. Then you would get cold.”
It was Bernier’s second expedition to the site. Last September, he raised the HMS Erebus ship’s bell soon after the wreck was discovered and confirmed as being one of Franklin’s two ships.
After the latest expedition, Operation Nunalivut 2015, Bernier is excited about how well-preserved many of the artifacts are, and the potential for the site to reveal even more.
Bernier was one of eight Parks Canada and 12 Royal Canadian Navy divers to take turns meticulously taking measurements and photographs, setting reference points and cataloguing details. The team recovered several artifacts.
Over Victoria Day weekend last month, the 6-pounder bronze cannon from HMSErebus was the star attraction at theBreaking the Ice exhibit at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec. The exhibit took place 170 years after the doomed Franklin Expedition, which included HMS Erebus, HMS Terror and 128 men, set sail from Greenhithe, England, in search of the Northwest Passage, on May 19, 1845.
The other artifacts briefly on display in water-filled tanks — Royal Navy tunic buttons, ceramic plates, a glass medicine bottle, a rigging block and glass illuminators — gave the public an early glimpse into the daily lives of the crew.
“When you see the state of preservation that they are in, it gives us an idea of the potential that we are going to see in that shipwreck,” says Bernier. “This is not even scratching the surface.”
Half of the artifacts, including the cannon and some of the rigging elements, were lying around the periphery of the site. Others were easily accessible through a hole in the upper deck, says Bernier.
The artifacts are currently going through conservation treatments at Parks Canada’s laboratory in Ottawa and for the time being must be submerged in water.
Bernier says that the artifacts support Inuit accounts of seeing a ship locked in the ice.
“One thing that is interesting is, one of the Inuit accounts that was recorded by (American explorer Frederick) Schwatka, who was looking for Franklin … in 1879 he was interviewing Inuit that he encountered and one of them, Puhtoorak, had been on the wreck. He recalled seeing the deserted ship ‘in complete order … seeing many spoons, knives, forks, tin plates and china plates.’ The plates that we recovered would have been close to where sailors had their mess tables, really close to the stove … It kind of corresponds to, ‘things were left in order.’ The fact that these things were found together with the medicine bottle in that little niche in that part of the deck, we can already link it to the Inuit accounts and testimony,” says Bernier.
Parks Canada divers also introduced small cameras into holes in the wreck.
“The next step is to start exploring the inside in more depth, because that is where 97% of the artifacts are, where all the information that is going to tell us what happened is going to be,” says Bernier.
“You can see numerous artifacts; boots, casks, ceramic jugs. It also shows us that a lot of the timbers from the decks have been displaced from the sinking. There is a lot of debris and we will have to make sense of that. It is going to be a challenge. It tells us, too, that the forward part of the ship is quite accessible. The deck beams and the decks are in position. The stern, where the cabins are, the ice has crushed things a little more. That means more difficult access but better preservation.”
As manager of the Parks Canada underwater team since 2008, Bernier oversees projects and logistics. He has worked for the service since 1990, scoring his dream job just as he was finishing his master’s dissertation at the University of Ottawa.
Originally from Kapuskasing in northern Ontario, Bernier started scuba diving at age 17 as a CEGEP student in Rouyn-Noranda. He explored the lakes of northern Quebec and then, as a uOttawa student, the St. Lawrence River. As an undergraduate, he discovered that archeology could be done under water. From then on, he focused on maritime themes, including navigation, ancient ships and harbour infrastructure. He studied Greek archeology and wrote his thesis on the topology of harbours in a region of Greece. His love of diving and his experience and knowledge of archeology meant that he was a perfect fit for the Parks Canada job.
You can see the artifacts yourself by viewing Parks Canada’s virtual exhibit or take a guided virtual video tour of HMS Erebus with Parks Canada’s Ryan Harris.
Marc-André Bernier, head of underwater archeology at Parks Canada, during an interview with the Tabaret last November at the Parks Canada laboratory and warehouse in Ottawa. Bernier spoke to us again about recovering more HMS Erebusartifacts last April. Photo: Mike Foster