OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian archeologists have discovered the wreckage of the ship that has been credited with discovering the fabled Northwest Passage, saying the vessel remains in good condition after being abandoned more than 150 years ago in the Arctic ice.
Archeologists were able to snap sonar images of HMS Investigator on the weekend not long after they arrived at the remote Mercy Bay site in the Northwest Territories, Marc-Andre Bernier of Parks Canada said on Wednesday.
The Investigator was the British ship that was sent to search for two lost vessels that were part of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated 1845 Royal Navy expedition to discover the Northwest Passage linking the Atlantic to the Pacific through Canada's Arctic archipelago.
"This is definitely of the utmost importance," said Bernier, chief of the underwater archeology service with Parks Canada, the federal body conducting the Arctic survey.
"This was the ship that confirmed and nailed the discovery of that passage."
He said one of the other archeologists had likened the discovery to finding one of Columbus's ships.
The icy waters have helped preserve the ship, which is sitting upright on the sea floor in about 11 meters (36 feet) of water and not far from the location where it was last documented in 1854.
The wreck had been difficult to find because of its remote location off Bank's Island and also because the waters are usually very icy. This year, the team had an ice free area to work in.
"It's in surprisingly good condition," said Bernier. "The reason we were so lucky in a way was because the ship had not moved too much from the place it was abandoned."
Archeologists plan to take more images this week from a small inflatable boat they are working with. They hope to use a robot equipped with cameras, similar to equipment now being used in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, to learn about the ship.
The graves of three Royal Navy sailors, who died in 1853 of scurvy, were also discovered. The British government has been notified of the find, Canadian Environment Minister Jim Prentice told Reuters from Mercy Bay.
The Investigator was deployed in 1850 with a 66-man crew, but was eventually abandoned after being locked in the grip of Arctic ice for two winters. The crew, led by Captain Robert John LeMesurier McClure, left behind a cache of equipment and provisions on the shore of what is now part of Aulavik National Park.
Prentice, who was scheduled to stay at the site for several more days, said the discovery of the ship and the artifacts on shore formed an "incredibly rich treasure trove."
"This really knits together the history of that really early exploration -- this history of the Inuit people ... who have been here thousands of years, and our modern attempts here in Canada," said Prentice.
Reporting by Ka Yan Ng; editing by Rob Wilson