© Bill Grimshaw / The Toronto Star Marc-Andre Bernier of Parks Canada with the wheel of HMS Breadalbane, a ship that hunted for Franklin’s wrecks before sinking in 1853.
Marc-André Bernier is like an expectant father as he peers lovingly over the sonar image. The Parks Canada archeologist sees his baby, a 160-year-old shipwreck at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

The picture shows HMS Investigator, a British ship sent to find the famous 1845 Franklin expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. Like HMS Erebus and HMS Terror that Sir John Franklin led to their frigid fates, the Investigator was abandoned in April 1853 after it became trapped in ice 150 metres off the north shore of Banks Island.

The only evidence of the incredible discovery made last July is four hours of underwater video and the black-and-gold sonar image that conjures up a child in the womb.

Located eight metres below the water's surface, the upper deck of the vessel is strewn with broken timber, from 158 years of seasonal ice forming and breaking up, and drifting icebergs. Of its three decks, only the top one is visible. The other two are covered from the outside by a century and a half of ocean silt.

Bernier, who is from Kapuskasing, Ont., will lead a team of six underwater archeologists below the surface of the sea (which is expected to be about 0C this time of year) and lay hands on something that has stalked their imaginations for years. They expect to set up their camp Sunday and spend about two weeks exploring the wreck.

"It will be frozen in time, literally," Bernier said in an interview, during a visit to his sprawling headquarters just days before leaving for the expedition.

The game plan sounds deceptively simple. First, divers are going to take video of the entire ship to try to construct a "photographic mosaic" of the site. Next, they are using a specially designed three-dimensional laser, the only one of its kind in the world, to precisely map the wreck.

It's only after this that they will peer inside the sunken time capsule. Even then, it will only be with cameras.

"We're going to be diving in an area where it may take six or seven hours for an airplane to get us if we run into problems, so we're going to be very, very cautious about the diving," Bernier said.

Still, their hopes are high, given that each member of the Investigator's crew were only able to leave the ship with five pounds of personal items. They expect that mementos, diaries, collections from the long voyage will have been left behind, as well as other clues about life aboard the Victorian-era vessel and how the ship met its end.

It is a mission that is as much scientific as cultural, and one that the Conservative government in Ottawa sees as equal parts national myth and Arctic sovereignty declaration.

It is, admits Ryan Harris, the team's remote sensing expert, "very topical."

Still damp from a training dive in a Gatineau-area rock quarry this week, what Harris doesn't say is that the confluence of themes, intersecting with some of the most pressing of the government's priorities, helps them make the argument for precious funds at a time when budgets are being shaved in the capital.

But it is also a personal quest for Bernier, a sort of Indiana Jones of the deep seas who heads Parks Canada's underwater archeology team.

He's worked on the excavation of a Basque whaling ship from the 16th century in Red Bay, Nfld., and explored a World War II-era American military aircraft that crash-landed and now sits at the bottom of the St. Lawrence River. He recovered thousands of artifacts from the sunken British ship Elizabeth and Mary, which launched a failed naval attack on Quebec City, in what was then New France, in 1690.

Bernier is also leading the search for the Erebus and Terror, the boats that made up the Franklin expedition. Already designated as national historic sites, they are the as yet undiscovered crown jewels of the century-and-a-half hunt.

"It's certainly the highlight of my career, and I've had some really nice expeditions," Bernier said.

In a vast Ottawa warehouse-cum-laboratory, the fruits of some of those searches are catalogued, stored or in mid-conservation.

There's the wheel of HMS Breadalbane, another ship that hunted for Franklin's wrecks that succumbed to Arctic ice in 1853. (The Breadalbane sailed around the southern tip of Argentina and up through the Pacific in its search for the Franklin wrecks.)

To save the wood and metal wheel, it sat in a bath of nitrogren-enriched water for 10 to 15 years, in a chemical solution for another two years and then headed to the freezer for another three years. They've almost got it in the clear, but you still can't touch it.

There are also detailed plans of the Investigator, protective metal sheeting thought to have coated the Breadalbane's hull, as well as tiny brass nails that held the sheeting to the wooden frame of the ship. They've found so much and come so close to the source of the age-old Arctic mystery.

But on the particular Sunday afternoon last July when the Investigator was discovered, Bernier was in an Ottawa park with his family playing a game called geocache, a sort of high-tech, underground version of hide and seek using a GPS (Yes, he hunts and discovers on his days off as well.)

Harris called from Mercy Bay to tell him what they had found after just three minutes of searching.

"We weren't even really surveying. We were just testing the sidescan sonar, which had crapped out on us," Harris said.

"My first thought was that if this is where Investigator is in this depth of water then it's probably been totally obliterated."

Harris regrets to this day mentioning that the ship was found so quickly, leaving an impression that the discovery was easy.

"It was not easy. You had to mobilize these tools and boats to get there and we ultimately got very lucky when we did arrive on site," he said.

The actual level of difficulty is better illustrated by the search for the Erebus and Terror, which will be the focus of a second expedition in late August in the Queen Maude Gulf and Victoria Strait, off the northern coast of Nunavut.

There, the investigators have pieced together surviving records from the Franklin expedition's crew as well as generations of passed-down Inuit history to define a search area that will cover hundreds of square kilometres of seabed, in part using a remote underwater vehicle on loan from the University of Victoria.

It will be an amazing feat if they are found this summer. Even if they are not, as Bernier likes to say, they will then be able to say definitively where the two ships are not located. That, in turn, will make it easier the next time someone sets off to search.

And there will be a next time. As Bernier and his team get closer, interest around the world only grows.

"There are Franklin aficionado groups all over the world that have blogs and anxiously chatter back and forth about survey developments and hypotheses and second-guessing us, which comes with the profile," says Harris.

He professes scientific detachment despite the allure of a shipwreck tale combined with the mystery of the Arctic.

"Once it gets its hooks into you it is such an enthralling story. It's one of the most engaging aspects of Canadian history."