Over the Waves: HMS Investigator

Happy Labour Day Weekend everyone!

At Titanic Belfast in May 2018.

I know it’s been a bit since I’ve written anything, but I have a reason. This month marks the beginning of my second year of my Masters degree in Anthropology at Memorial University. Between school, work, and life, it’s been quite the busy year. I know the posts are infrequent, but I want to thank everyone who takes the time to come back and read every time I publish new content. Without you, this would just be me screaming into the void.

I may disappear for weeks (or months) at a time, but I promise this blog is never forgotten!

If you don’t already, feel free to follow me on Twitter and Instagram. I post articles of interest and photos from the harbour much more frequently there, so you can keep up with what’s going on in Shipsterland. 

Also, if you have any wrecks you’d like me to write about, or you’re wondering about a ship I’ve talked about previously, reach out and let me know. I love getting feedback!

Now that all that is out of the way, let’s carry on with what we all came here for...

Image from Brett Seymour Photography

This vessel is yet another piece of the infamous Franklin Expedition puzzle. Along with the HMS Enterprise, the HMS Investigator set out to find Franklin and his doomed vessels, the Terror and Erebus, but with no success. Becoming trapped in ice themselves, the crew would have met their own tragic fate were it not for antoher Royal Navy ship becoming trapped in the ice nearby. Today, we’re travelling over the waves to learn about the HMS Investigator.

Ship Stats

  • Nationality: Britain

  • Weight: 422 tonnes

  • Length: 36 metres (118 feet)

  • Beam: 8.6 metres (28.3 feet)

  • Depth of hold: 5.8 metres (18.1 feet)

  • Year: 1848

Constructed at Scotts of Greenock on the Firth of Clyde, the HMS Investigator was originally designed as a whaling ship. After being acquired by the British Admiralty in 1848, quick work was made to see that she was fitted out for Arctic exploration. Moved to the River Thames, she was strengthened with teak, English oak, and Canadian elm, and parts of her were fitted with 8mm steel plating to help better weather the harsh conditions she would face. Her decks were doubled with layers of fir to help bear the extra loads of ice and snow, and a series of “ventilating illuminators” were installed below decks to increase air circulation and light. Finally, a modern stove system was installed that, once activated, could heat the entire vessel from stem to stern.

Sledge party leaving the HMS Investigator. Painted by Samuel Gurney Cresswell.

Once she sailed back down the Thames, the Investigator was a powerhouse of a barque, ready to take on the Arctic. Setting out in 1849 alongside the HMS Enterprise, the ships sailed towards South America, planning to circumvent the continent and approach the Arctic from the west. Both were classified as survey vessels, and it was just as important that more information be gathered about the Americas as it was that Franklin and his men be found. Naturalists on board collected samples of flora and fauna throughout their travels, and pieces of tropical wood found later on the wreck indicate that some repairs may have been made during the voyage. Rounding along the bottom of Chile and travelling up the Pacific Coast, the Investigator and Enterprise approached the Northwest Passage and turned westward, navigating the northernmost channels in search of their lost countrymen.

The Investigator and Enterprise, stuck in the ice of Mercy Bay, 1850. Image from the National Maritime Museum online collection.

In 1850, while sailing through Mercy Bay, Nunavut, the Investigator became jammed in the ice. Not an uncommon occurance, given the terrain, so the men hunkered down intending to wait until the spring thaw. What started off as an anticipated short few months, however, quickly stretched into three years. Food rations began to wane, and three crew members died of scurvy in early 1853, their bodies were buried in graves on the rough shoreline. Finally, in June of the same year, the crew decided to abandon ship. As they finished burying what supplies and goods they had in caches along the coast and turned to walk southward, a welcome sight met their eyes – the HMS Resolute, up on a northern patrol, had become wedged in the ice just down the way. The men were able to walk over land to the ship and climb aboard. 

The Resolute remained trapped in the ice for another year before she was able to free herself and sail home for England. The men of the HMS Investigator finally returned home five years after their journey had begun. 

Though the Investigator had disappeared from view, it had not disappeared from memory. Stories of the wreck stayed alive in the oral histories of the local Inuit community, who used the abandoned wreck as a source of copper and iron. The lore stated that one year the ship was still in the ice, and the next it had disappeared from view. 

Investigator in the ice. Painted by Samuel Gurney Cresswell.

160 years later, a group of archaeologists arrived on the shores of Mercy Bay, now the northern tip of Aulavik National Park https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/nt/aulavik, intent on finding the lost wreck. With a research plan and supplies for two weeks, they were ready to put in 14 hour days to accomplish their goal.

So imagine their surprise when, three minutes into their first trip, they found her.

After launching their Zodiac and dropping their torpedo-shaped sonar into the one patch of ice-free water, a spike came back immediately. It took a few more passes over the wreck before the team let their excitement fully take hold.

The Investigator lies on the bottom of the bay in about 10 metres of water. She came to rest upright in the sediment, her hull appearing to be cresting over waves of stone and sand. While the area around her has been gouged by icebergs and other ice floes, the ship herself has managed to escape destruction for the most part. Her masts were the largest casualty, with one now resting across the upper deck, and the others knocked away by ice years ago. On a clear day, it’s even possible to see the wreck from the surface.

The bow of the Investigator in 2011. Image from Parks Canada.

Another team returned to the site in 2011 and completed an ROV exploration of the wreck, recovering 16 small fastenings and pieces of wood for analysis. At this point, the Terror andErebuswere still undiscovered, so the Investigator renewed hope in researchers that the wrecks could be as well preserved as she was, having met a similar fate. 

Investigator on the floor of Mercy Bay, as seen by Sonar. Image from Parks Canada.

The Investigator may not have found Franklin, the Terror, or the Erebus, but she and her crew are credited with finding something far more valuable in terms of history – the Northwest Passage. By approaching the Arctic from the west and making it across to Nunavut, they proved that such a passage could be made. 

My favourite thing about the discovery of these Arctic vessels is that researchers have begun to return to local indigenous histories to better understand where they might be found. These narratives had been disregarded or discounted for so long, but these were the people interacting with these vessels – they were on their landscapes and horizons long after they were abandoned. By merging science, colonial, and indigenous histories we are able to reveal a new, multifaceted approach to historic discovery. I’m excited to see how this approach continues into the future, and what other parts of Canadian history might be uncovered by looking to indigenous histories.