In September 2014, Paul Watson was told archaeologist had made one of the biggest discoveries in Canadian maritime history — but he wasn’t able to tell anyone.
Watson, who was a journalist with the Toronto Star at the time, was aboard the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier icebreaker that was responsible for finding HMS Erebus in the Canadian Arctic two years ago.
Originally constructed by the Royal Navy in Whales in 1826, the 372-ton vessel was the ship that British explorer Sir John Franklin used during an expedition, along with HMS Terror, to gather magnetic data in the Canadian Arctic and complete a crossing of the Northwest Passage.
The ships were last seen entering Baffin Bay in August 1845, but shortly after disappeared, setting off a massive search effort in the Arctic for the famed explorer and the 129 crew.
Fast forward nearly 169 years and the ships’ disappearances remained a mystery, despite several attempts to find them.
It wasn’t until 2014 in which Parks Canada announced it would be deploying on a six-week search with the goal of finding the two ships.
Watson was asked to spend three weeks aboard CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier and after writing a few articles about life aboard the ship, was invited to board the Investigator, a smaller ship that marine archaeologists used to scan the sea bed for evidence of the wreck.
After spending a day aboard the ship, Watson returned back to the Laurier with no crew mentioning anything about the discovery.
“I spent a whole day doing that (on the Investigator) and it’s really monotonous work. It’s going very slowly, in straight lines, turning and going in another straight line, with a sonar device. It’s not exciting stuff. A whole day of that and not once did they let on that they already found the ship,” Watson said.
“In retrospect, it would have been the perfect moment for them to at least wink, but they keep secrets very well.”
HMS Erebus was found after a Laurier helicopter pilot stumbled across a rusted piece of iron, shaped like a hair pin roughly the length of a man’s forearm on the shoreline of a remote island in the eastern Queen Maud Gulf. The object turned out to be from the Royal Navy — and from one of the missing ships.
A few days later marine archaeologist took a boat out to the area and found HMS Erebus in shallow water and in relatively good condition.
It was few days later when a public relations person quietly whispered in Watson’s ear that the ship was found.
Watson was unable to tell anyone or release a story about it until then prime minister Stephen Harper’s office was notified and made a public announcement about the discovery.
“I was in the bizarre position of being high up in the Arctic, knowing that history had been made and not being able to tell anybody,” said Watson, adding at the time, he wasn’t told exactly where the ship was found.
“As someone who came to this with a passing knowledge of the Franklin expedition, that immediately changed. It’s a mysterious kind of affect. Immediately, I was transported back to that time and couldn’t stop thinking about the 129 men who died on that expedition.”
And on Sept. 9, 2014, Harper announced the finding of HMS Erebus to the world.
Now, the Maritime Museum of B.C. hopes to shine the spotlight on the discovery during the event, Mysteries of the Erebus this week.
Watson, alongside Parks Canada lead archaeologist and diver Ryan Harris, Sir Wilfrid Laurier Captain Bill Noon, and Capt. David Woodman, will be sharing their experience and updates into the search for the Franklin expedition, the discoveries and the continuing exploration.
“This is a very big maritime history story. It’s one of national significance and one that we wanted to make sure residents of Victoria had an opportunity to learn first-hand about from some of the individuals who played a big role in the project,” said Maritime Museum of B.C. executive director David Leverton.
“For the ship to be found in such shallow water and in such great condition . . . it’s revealing a lot of secrets that a lot of people had no idea about.”
Mysteries of Erebus takes place Thursday, Oct. 13 beginning at 6 p.m. Tickets are $55 for members and $60 for non-members, and can be purchased at the museum (634 Humboldt St.)