When Joe Boucher signed up for the Commercial Diving program at Holland College in 2008, it’s unlikely that he thought that he’d end up on board a ship off the coast of Nunavut searching for two ships that disappeared almost 170 years ago. But that’s exactly where he found himself, as part of the Victoria Straits Expedition to find the Franklin Expedition ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.
May, 1845, the two Royal Navy ships left Greenhithe, England on an expedition to map out a northwest passage that would take the ships from Europe to Asia. Under the command of Sir John Franklin, the expedition’s two ships set out with 134 officers and men. The ships had been fitted with the most up to date gear for polar exploration, including a heating system and a water distillation system; and were loaded with enough provisions to last up to three years. Franklin’s orders were to find a passage and return to England via the Pacific Ocean.
Last seen by Europeans in July of 1845, the ships never returned to England.
In 1848, a search party was sent to determine the fate of the explorers, and subsequently there were many searches. In 1850, three grave sites and relics from the expedition were located on the east coast of Beechey Island. In 1859, Lieutenant Hobson, part of searcher Francis Leopold McClintock’s expedition, discovered a note on King William Island that shed some light on the fate of the crew of the two ships. Over the years, human remains believed to be those of members of the Franklin Expedition were found, the condition of some of the bones suggesting that the lost sailors had resorted to cannibalism. Many studies and findings, including scraps of notes written by members of the expedition found by Inuit hunters over the years, have suggested that the men had succumbed to starvation, frostbite and hypothermia; but the ships themselves were never recovered.
In August of 2014, the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition was launched. The expedition brought together public and private partners and the most sophisticated equipment in the world to search for the ships and the secrets they may contain.
This area of the Arctic waters is relatively unmapped, due to the thickness of the ice, and it somehow seems fitting that a graduate of Holland College (which is named after one of the most influential 18th Century surveyors of British North America), should participate in such an ambitious project…and have one of the coolest jobs ever.
I grew up in Barrie, Ontario, but I have lived mostly in Ottawa since 2002. After graduating from Holland College’s Commercial diving program in 2009, I worked for a few years as a commercial diver. I came across a posting on the Government of Canada’s public service jobs website for an underwater dive technician position. I had the required experience, education and background, so I decided to apply. I was the successful candidate. I started working with Parks Canada in 2011.
I’m an underwater archaeology technician. I am a diver with a commercial background, so I do many of the more practical tasks underwater. I also contribute to some of the underwater archaeology taking measurements, making observations, and even excavating. However, diving is really only a small part of what I do. I work with our technologist to maintain all of our equipment, such as boats, trucks, and dive equipment. I assist with acquisitions and provide logistical support on many of our projects. I work to ensure that our equipment is transferred from one project to another in a timely and efficient manner. I do whatever else is asked of me, which can be very diverse, from driving a forklift around to shaking hands with our Minister, to rebuilding diving regulators. My job, in large part, consists of doing what is needed to ensure that the archaeologists can do theirs, including offering advice or insight in areas where I may have a different perspective or understanding, based on my training and previous work experience.
Every spring, we have a meeting to discuss the next year’s work plan. We decide what projects will be undertaken and resources are assigned following these discussions. This past year, I was lucky enough to work in Gwaii Haanas National Park, The Empress of Ireland National Historic Site and, most recently, the Victoria Strait Expedition.
There were a number of vessels involved in the expedition: Royal Canadian Navy’s HMCS Kingston, the Arctic Research Foundation’s Martin Bergmann, the Canadian Coast Guard Vessel Sir Wilfrid Laurier and One Ocean Expedition’s One Ocean Voyager, supplied through the Royal Canadian Geographic Society. There were also a number of small boats and other tools such as a Defence Research and Development Canada autonomous underwater vehicle. I was berthed on board the Sir Wilfrid Laurier, and piloted Investigator, the boat that was towing the side scan sonar that found the Erebus.
It took two days to get from Ottawa to Cambridge Bay. From there, I boarded the Sir Wilfrid Laurier to begin the search. We did not go directly to the site – we searched a gradually expanding area. The route was planned out in advance. In total, we were on board for approximately four weeks, and I believe the discovery was made during the second week aboard the vessel.
Once the discovery was made, we made several passes with the side scan sonar to acquire more diagnostic images. After this, we used a Parks Canada ROV to “ground truth” the target to get a camera on the shipwreck and actually make sure it was what we thought it was. After this, we dove on the wreck. At the same time, in between dives, the Canadian Hydrographic Service used a high-tech multi-beam system to acquire very detailed 3D images of the shipwreck.
I am one of only four people present at the actual discovery, and I am one of the seven people who dove on the ship to date. It was pretty cool. I dove on the shipwreck once. The idea was to look for unique features on the wreck which would help identify which of Franklin’s ship we had found.
It was a pretty humbling experience. When you think that you are part of a select group of people who are the first to lay eyes on the ship in almost 200 years, it certainly does stop and make you think. Really when I was around the ship most of the things going through my head were the still unanswered questions: How did the ship get here? What is still on board? What can we learn from the ship? I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to dive the vessel and hopefully future expeditions will give us the opportunity to answer many of the questions which remain.
Our team was recognized by the House of Commons when we returned from the expedition. We received a standing ovation from the MPs, and had our photo taken with the Prime Minister.
When I was in school, I never saw myself going this direction, but it’s absolutely awesome. Going to Holland College opened all kinds of doors for me. The program gave me many of the tools I need to do my current job. I learned a lot about many of the tools and equipment used in diving, how things work and why they work. It taught me the importance of a certain level of physical fitness for diving. The program gave me knowledge and experience necessary to start my career as a commercial diver.
I would tell other people interested in getting into this field that hard work is very important. Employers, as well as your fellow employees, will respect you more if you put forth a solid effort. Your interpersonal skills are very important. A career in diving often means spending long periods of time at least semi isolated with your colleagues. You have to know how to get along with people. Breaking into the diving industry is not easy, but the program at Holland will give you an excellent start.
Joe wasn’t the only Holland College graduate to participate in the Victoria Strait Expedition. Captain David MacIsaac and his son Daniel, graduates of the college’s Marine Training Centre, were also part of the expedition.
This article originally was posted on Holland College’s blog. Check out more success stories of their graduates.