The Quest for the Northwest Passage

Sea ice off Beechey Island

The quest for the Northwest Passage was one of the greatest navigational challenges and an international obsession for early mariners.

For 500 years explorers, spurred by the promise of wealth or prestige, risked their lives to find a commercial route to the markets of the Orient.

Early notions of geography were primitive and sometimes flawed. The choice of routes was not always based on any rational understanding of where a passage to the Orient might lie.

For over three hundred years, sailors had tried to find this northerly route that linked the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They reasoned that it would provide a safer and shorter alternative to the stormy and lengthy passage around Cape Horn. Honour and glory stood to be gained by the discoverer of the Passage, as well as a £20,000 purse offered by the British crown.

The European perception of the Arctic as a sublime, beautiful and inspiring place left explorers ill prepared for the ice-choked sea and frozen landmass, temperatures as low as -65°F (-54° C) or white-outs, mirages and mock suns. Nevertheless, fascination with the Arctic and the drive to find the Northwest Passage stretched over five centuries.

Beginning in 1497 with John Cabot, a steady succession of explorers from different countries tried and failed in the attempt.

Famously Sir John Franklin made three attempts loosing both his ships and his own life on the third.

On that occasion his ships, Erebus and Terror, disappeared and with them, their crews of 132 men. The expedition was sighted in July 1845 by a whaler off the coast of Melville Bay, and then never seen again.

Frances and Michael Howorth explored the North West Passages onboard Ocean Endeavour with the help of Destination Canada and Adventure Canada We are truly grateful to them both for the opportunity they provided with us to do our job.