It was a legendary expedition whose mysterious end has gripped imaginations for more than a century, but now those piecing together Admiral Sir John Franklin's failed 1845 expedition to find the North-west Passage may have a new and important piece of the puzzle.
The TV adventurer Bear Grylls claims to have found human bones, the remnants of huge fires built from ship timber, and tools carved from whale bon,e which may help to explain the fate of the famous explorer, his 129 men and their two ships.
The adventurer and his crew made the discovery while on a mission to enter the record books as the first team to navigate the treacherous North-west Passage in a small RIB (Rigid Inflatable Boat). They stumbled across the remains on a small island in Wellington Strait, just to the east of King William Island, Canada. As the findings have yet to be analysed by experts, it is not known if the artefacts relate to Franklin and his crew – or are even a new discovery – but specialists are keen to review the find.
"It is certainly interesting. Every discovery relating to Franklin and his crew is important," said Marc-André Bernier, chief of underwater exploration for the Canadian government agency Parks Canada. "And if it isn't them, then it raises the question: what is it? It is not common to find those type of things up there."
When Franklin set out to map the passage, it was to be his fourth and final mission to the Arctic. The expedition's two vessels, the Erebus and the Terror, were never seen again. An 1848 search party aboard the HMS Investigator, sent at the insistence of Franklin's widow, Jane, was to be the first of many unsuccessful attempts to uncover the truth about what really happened to the lost expedition. In July this year the Investigator was found ice-bound in the passage's Mercy Bay, by a team of Parks Canada explorers.
Unlike these search teams, British adventurer Grylls – at one point the youngest person to have climbed Everest– undertook the 13-day trip to raise awareness of the effects of climate change on the planet.
"We sought shelter from the strong northerly wind behind a tiny rocky island and where in turn we stumbled by accident on our discovery of the graves, human remains, rotting mast and a large area of charred rock where some serious wood burning had gone on. There are no trees for hundreds of miles from there," he said.
Some are sceptical as to whether or not the TV star has really managed to best the teams of professional scientists and explorers who have dedicated their lives to unlocking the mystery of Franklin's crew.
"It could have already been discovered, there has been some exploration up there," said Gillian Hutchinson, curator of the history of cartography at the National Maritime Museum. "But the fires sound interesting. I don't think any evidence of fires has been found there".
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Earlier this month a box, which may contain records of Franklin's expedition, was excavated from beneath an Arctic cairn. It is currently being analysed by the Canadian Conservation Institute. While the treacherous conditions of the icy North-west Passage have prevented exploration for much of the year, global warming is making the region more accessible, and now a new cruise, run by the local Inuit, will take tourists on the trail of the 19th-century explorers.
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