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3 October 2016

Finding the HMS Terror - The Northwest Passage's Most Famous Casualty

Recently, the first commercial cruise traveled through through the Northwest Passage, ushering in a new kind of Arctic tourism, brought on by dissipating sea ice and lamented by scientists and conservationists alike.

Even now, the notion of sipping a gin and tonic while gently cruising through one of the most remote marine passages on the planet seems ridiculous, but turn the clock back 170 years and it's equivocal to hearing that a friend is going on holiday on Mercury. 

It wasn't until 1906 that the passage was 'conquered' entirely by ship by Roald Amundsen. Previous to this, all successful expeditions had either used a combination of sea and land travel, or just failed. Said failed expeditions often resulted in the loss of both ships and lives, as was the case with the perhaps poorly named HMS Terror. 

Originally a bomb vessel which participated in the Battle of Baltimore in 1812, the HMS Terror then embarked on three Arctic explorations - one to Repulse Bay, one to the then undiscovered Ross Sea and finally one to the Northwest Passage. It was this last voyage, led by Sir John Franklin, which ultimately claimed the ship. 

The Terror and her sister ship, the HMS Erebus, were last seen sailing into Baffin Bay in 1845. A massive search was undertaken when it became clear that they weren't coming back, but all that was ever found were the remains of the crews, who had abandoned their icebound ships and made for Fort Resolution before succumbing to starvation. Evidence suggests that their supplies were poisoned with lead, and that more than a few of them had resorted to consuming the remains of their crewmates.

Since then, numerous attempts have been made to find the ships, but none had ever been successful. A few weeks ago, it was announced that a ship matching the Terror's description had been found on the coast of King William Island, some 24 meters below the waves. The ship is amazingly well preserved, and it appears that sailors might have at some point tried to re-man the ship before it sank.

It appears that the ship was buttoned down for the cold before it went down, and in fact everything was secured to well that, if the vessel could be raised, it might even still float. The location of the ship also makes it pretty certain that, after it was abandoned, the crew boarded the Erebus and headed south (and to their doom). 

Inuit knowledge was instrumental in finding the Terror, in particular a story told by a hunter about having seen a mast emerging from the water around Terror Bay (where the ship was found, fittingly). A few submersible trips down the wreckage later, everything was confirmed. 

The Erebus was found in 2014 in far worse condition, but many of the crew's remains still have yet to be found. Theories about lead poisoning or scurvy remain tennuous without any medical documents to refer back to, we may never truly know. What we do know is that the level of free exploration around the Arctic Circle which we now enjoy came at the price of many lives, and the HMS Terror remains one of the most infamous attempts to cross into the planet's last true frontier.

Callum Davies

Callum is a film school graduate who is now making a name for himself as a journalist and content writer. His vices include flat whites and 90s hip-hop.