ARCHEOLOGY

Into the tomb of HMS Breadalbane

Gillian MacKay June 6 1983
ARCHEOLOGY

Into the tomb of HMS Breadalbane

Gillian MacKay June 6 1983

Into the tomb of HMS Breadalbane

ARCHEOLOGY

Gillian MacKay

For more than a century HMS Breadalbane lay forgotten on the bed of the Arctic Ocean. The frigid depths preserved the wreck like a museum artifact. Anemones and jellyfish thrived around its dark timbers, transformed over the decades into a brilliant red-orange coral reef beneath the ice. Listing slightly to port, with two of its three original masts still standing, it appeared ready to embark on a surreal underwater voyage. The ship’s secrets would have remained 100 m beneath the Arctic ice had it not been for the discoveries of Toronto diver and Arctic expert Dr. Joseph Maclnnis. Af-

ter searching for five years he finally saw the ghostly image of the Breadalbane (pronounced Breda/iban) on the screen of a side-scan sonar on the bridge of the Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Sir John A. Macdonald on Aug. 13, 1980. Last month he crowned his obsessive quest by leading a 20-man expedition to the site 960 km north of the Arctic Circle. There, in a remarkable display of technological prowess, a team of divers managed to recover the remarkably well-preserved wheel of the ship, while a remotely piloted underwater camera brought a stunning array of images back to the surface. And last week he revealed them to the world at a press conference in the Washington, D.C., headquarters of National Geographic magazine, which co-sponsored

the adventure. Says Maclnnis: “It was one of the unforgettable dives of the century.”

The romance of the search for the northernmost and best-preserved ocean wreck known to man tends to obscure the Breadalbane’s humble origins. A lowly supply ship, it was one of 40 vessels that the British government sent to find the expedition of Sir John Franklin, whose quest for a Northwest Passage to the Orient foundered somewhere near King William Island, in the central Arctic, in the late 1840s. On Aug. 21, 1853, the Breadalbane was crushed between grinding blocks of ice in Lancaster Sound off Devon Island. It sank in 15 minutes while

its 21 crew members scrambled to safety on a nearby sister ship, the Phoenix.

Last month’s conquest of what Maclnnis calls his “underwater Everest” was three years in the making. Largescale expeditions planned for the spring of 1981 and 1982 had to be cancelled at the last minute because of unsafe ice conditions. This spring Maclnnis had intended to organize only a small fourman expedition to study ways to get around the ice problems in the future. But in March he learned from an Arctic scientist that the area around the wreck was covered in thick, smooth ice, providing a perfect surface for building an on-site camp and diving platforms directly above the wreck. The plans quickly changed. Says Maclnnis: “Na-

ture handed us a good card, and we played it.”

In four weeks he mobilized an expert team, which included divers Phil Nuytten and Doug Osborne, Parks Canada marine archeologist Robert Grenier, an underwater photographer from National Geographic, Emory Kristof, and Dome Petroleum ice expert Peter Jess. An advance party of five arrived on April 19 by Twin Otter from Resolute, 95 km to the west, to prepare the site. First, they had to find the ship again by sonar because a $10,000 transmitter that had been lowered onto the ship in 1981 had somehow broken loose and wound up 900 km away on the north shore of Baffin Island. They cleared

at least nine tonnes of ice and snow from the surface, using shovels and pickaxes, then blasted through more than two metres of ice to create diving and camera holes. Working 16-hour days under the midnight sun in -20 C weather, the expedition was ready to tackle the wreck in early May.

The exploration was a kind of Arctic test launch for the latest in underwater technology. The divers wore 680-kg aluminum-cast WASP suits, named for their passing resemblance to the insect. Similar gear could soon become indispensable in offshore oil exploration in the high Arctic. Designed in part by team diver Nuytten, who is president of Vancouver-based Can-Dive Services Ltd., the WASP is a jet-propelled personal submarine, which, because it is

pressurized, can support divers at depths of 600 m for as long as 60 hours. Directed by foot pedals like a car’s, WASP has manually operated arms and mechanical handgrips, which Osborne used to pick up the ship’s wheel. The 100-m dive would have taken a scuba diver about 12 hours because of the need to adapt to the increasing pressure, but it took only about four to five minutes in the WASP.

Nuytten paused briefly to stare at the ship’s silhouette, visible by natural light in the crystal-clear water. “The wreck was incredibly beautiful,” he told Maclean's. “You could almost feel the ghosts.” After two hours the diver could also feel the -2 C temperature of the water, which caused his long underwear to freeze to the inside of the already bruisingly tight diving suit. Said the slightly overweight Nuytten: “I felt like a hot dog inside its skin.”

While the two divers suffered inside their suits, other team members watched in comfort on 53-cm color television screens in the tent camps on the ice above. Their four dives were recorded by a robot-like device called an RPV (for Remotely Piloted Vehicle), which carried television and still-frame cameras. For panorama shots of the ship, the photographer suspended an underwater chandelier of airplane landing lights from the hole in the ice above. Says Kristoff, who also used an RPV to photograph the magnificent wrecks of the U.S. warships Hamilton and Scourge at the bottom of Lake Ontario in 1982: “We have shown the first of the ghost ships—pictures that look like every 12-year-old boy’s dream of a sunken ship.”

The expedition yielded more than beautiful images. The most dramatic piece of booty was the ship’s wooden wheel. Archeologist Grenier took good care of his prize. Once the wheel surfaced, he refused to allow team members to put it back into the ocean for more photographs. He then spent 12 hours fashioning a packing crate from the plywood floor of the divers’ tent and padding it with air mattresses. “Some people had to sleep on chairs for the rest of the trip,” he admits. Archeologists will also examine a pulley block removed from one of the masts and a piece

of copper from the hull to determine corrosion rates in the Arctic. The divers also picked up marine-life samples for biologists, who are surprised by the richness of growth in the icy waters. Geologists will investigate photographs of the seabed that show a phenomenon known as “scouring”—deep ruts that are generally believed to have been caused by moving icebergs. Because of the dangers scouring would pose to underwater pipelines, the oil industry, government officials and environmentalists are keen to discover if it is an ancient phenomenon or a continuing problem. Steve Blasco, a marine geologist with Energy, Mines and Resources, has tentatively concluded that the heavy sedimentation shown in the photographs and the fact that the wreck has survived indicate that the scouring took place more than 1,000 years ago.

This kind of detailed look at the Breadalbane may be the last. The cost of raising the ship would be prohibitive for an artifact of minor archeological significance. Now that the Breadalbane has been explored, Maclnnis says he could not justify mounting another expedition costing more than $1 million. Last month’s expedition was made possible largely through services donated by the federal government and partly through cash donations totalling $200,000 from various corporations. But Maclnnis’ Arctic adventures are not over. His sights are now set on the far more difficult goal of finding Franklin’s lost ships, the Erebus and the Terror. As long as the ghost ships beckon, he will continue to explore the “frozen, forgotten world” of Canada’s Arctic heritage. £>