Page last updated at 21:27 GMT, Friday, 15 August 2008 22:27 UK

Canada seeks historic shipwrecks

Painting by W Turner Smith of the Franklin Expedition
The fate of the 1845 expedition has become a legend

A Canadian team is to search for two ships lost in an 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage.

The British ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were trapped in the Arctic ice as Sir John Franklin sought a northern route from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

He and his 128 crew died - although their exact fate remains a mystery - and the ships were never found.

Canadian environment minister John Baird says the search has "the allure of an Indiana Jones movie".

Retreating Arctic ice has made the Northwest Passage much more accessible and Canada is also using the search as a way of asserting its sovereignty over the region.

The exploration team is due to fly out on Saturday to join a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker that will use sonar equipment to search an area south of King William Island.


They will also use oral history from the native Inuit to provide clues about where to look.

Frozen corpses, believed to be those of some of the crew of the Franklin Expedition, have been found in the past along the route.


Theories for their demise have included tinned food poisoned by lead and stories from the Inuit of cannibalism among the doomed men.

"Canada will now embark on its own journey... (on) the search for these two vessels, which has the allure of an Indiana Jones mystery," said Mr Baird, alluding to the fictional adventurer.

"The Franklin Expedition is a key part of Canada's history of Arctic exploration. As Canada is once again asserting ourselves and protecting our sovereignty in the High Arctic, this expedition will provide important new information and will add to the body of research on the fate of these ships."

The initial search will last six weeks, followed by further explorations in 2009 and 2010 if needed. If the ships or any artefacts are found, the British government has agreed to assign ownership to Canada.

Mr Baird said it was important for Canada to assert its sovereignty over the Arctic regions in a variety of ways - historically, environmentally, militarily and in the use of resources.

As global warming shrinks the Arctic ice, Russia, the US, Canada, Denmark, Iceland and Norway all stake claims to areas potentially rich in gas and oil.

"We have staked our claim. It's use it or lose it. For far too long our country has not had a strong presence in the far north," Mr Baird said.

Canada says that the waterways of the Northwest Passage are Canadian rather than international waters - a view disputed by other countries, including the US and Britain.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said Canada will buy new Arctic patrol ships, increase aerial surveillance and expand the Canadian Rangers military unit in the region.

He is due to tour Arctic regions later in August.

"Oil and mineral resources in the far north, gas reserves... put it higher on the agenda than it would have been even just a year ago," Mr Baird said.

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