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OTTAWA (Reuters) - Appealing to national sovereignty and the spirit of exploration, Canada launched a search on Friday for the ships of the doomed 1845 Franklin expedition that was seeking the fabled Northwest Passage.
The British ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were trapped in the Arctic ice as Sir John Franklin sought to chart a northern route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, to reach the Far East.
He and his 128 crew died and rescue expeditions never found his ships.
"Canada will now embark on its own journey ... (on) the search for these two vessels, which has the allure of an Indiana Jones mystery," Environment Minister John Baird told a news conference.
Using oral history from the native Inuit to provide clues where to look, a team will fly out on Saturday to join a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker that will use sonar equipment to search an area south of King William Island in Nunavut.
Though the ships have not been detected, traces of 70 crew members -- many of whom started trekking overland in desperation -- have been found. Research has suggested they suffered from lead poisoning from canned food, and Inuit stories tell of cannibalism among the doomed crew.
The expedition inspired Dan Simmons' historical novel "The Terror" last year and a series of earlier books.
Beyond the historical interest, Baird said it was important for Canada's drive to assert its sovereignty over the Arctic regions in a variety of ways -- historically, environmentally, militarily and in terms of resource use.
"We've staked our claim. It's use it or lose it," he said. "For far too long our country has not had a strong presence in the far North."
The United States, Britain and others disagree with Canada's assertion that the Northwest Passage itself, now opening up to ice-free periods that Franklin could only dream of, are Canadian rather than international waters.
Further north, under the Arctic Ocean, the race is on to map the continental shelf as Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland and Norway stake claims to areas potentially rich in gas and oil.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged to buy new Arctic patrol ships, expand aerial surveillance and bolster the number and capabilities of the Canadian Rangers military unit. He will be touring Arctic regions later in August.
"Oil and mineral resources in the far North, gas reserves ... put it higher on the agenda than it would have been even just a year ago," Baird said.
This year's search will last six weeks, followed by six-week stretches in 2009 and 2010 if needed. The British government has agreed to assign ownership of the vessels and any artifacts found to Canada.