Canada said Friday it will search for two fabled British explorer ships that disappeared in the Arctic more 160 years ago, fearing melting ice caused by global warming could entice others to find and plunder the underwater tombs.
Environment Minister John Baird announced the Parks Canada-led search for British Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin's ships. The HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were last seen in the late-1840s.
Franklin and 128 hand-picked officers and men vanished mysteriously on an expedition that began in 1845 to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Franklin's disappearance prompted one of history's largest rescue searches, from 1848 to 1859, which resulted in the discovery of the passage.
The route runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic archipelago. European explorers sought the passage as a shorter route to Asia, but found it rendered inhospitable by ice and weather.
Robert Grenier, a senior underwater archaeologist with Parks Canada, will lead the search for Franklin's ships aboard the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
"It's very exciting. It's like an Indiana Jones adventure. It's searching for a lost under water tomb," Baird told The Associated Press.
The mission comes as Canada moves to assert sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, where melting ice has unlocked the very shipping route Franklin's men were after.
Grenier said Hollywood producers and others have offered local aboriginal Inuits money to help search for the ships.
"Our objective is to find and protect the wreck, because they are in danger of being found by people who don't have the know-how and the same intention and preoccupation that we have," Grenier said.
The six-week Franklin mission begins Aug. 18. If the expedition fails to find the lost ships, two more six-week expeditions are scheduled for the next two summers.
Franklin's vessels are among the most sought-after prizes in marine archaeology.
Tantalizing traces have been found over the years, including the bodies of three crewmen discovered in the 1980s.
The bodies of two English seamen - John Hartnell, who died at age 25, and royal Marine William Braine, 33, were exhumed in 1986 - and an expedition uncovered the perfectly preserved remains of a petty officer, John Torrington, who was 20 when he died, in an ice-filled coffin in 1984.
The ships have never been located.
Experts believe the ships came to grief in 1848 after they became locked in the ice near King William Island and that the crews abandoned them in a hopeless bid to reach safety.
Grenier and his team will use sonar to cover the search area and send teams to nearby islands to look for clues.
Inuit researcher Louie Kamoukak will aid the team in their search with accounts passed down from 19th-century ancestors who witnessed the lost Franklin crew's forlorn end.
"For the first time in over 160 years, I feel that the witnesses of (the) Franklin tragedy events have a chance to really contribute to an important search party," he said.
Author Dorothy Harley Eber gathered Inuit oral accounts in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, while researching an upcoming book on the Northwest Passage.
Inuit lore tells of "white men who were starving" as late as the winter of 1850 on the Royal Geographical Society Island, she said, meaning some of Franklin's crew may have survived longer than previously thought.
Inuit elders believe greasy patches on the islands' shores mark the spots where the stranded crew used seal oil blubber for cooking and warmth, she said.
The search for a passage to Asia frustrated explorers for centuries, beginning with John Cabot's voyage in 1497. Eventually it became clear that a passage did exist, but was too far north for practical use. Cabot died in 1498 while trying to find it and the shortcut eluded other famous explorers including Henry Hudson and Francis Drake.
No sea crossing was successful until Roald Amundsen of Norway, who took three seasons to complete his trip from 1903-1906.