They were never heard from again. It is known the crews abandoned the ships and tried to march south; artifacts have been found on land from tiime to time.
The loss of the two ships has been one of the biggest maritime disaster stories for almost 170 years.
It was announced today that the wreck of the Terror has been found in 80 feet of water, several dozen miles south of where she was suspected to lie. Erebus was found 2 years ago.
Interestingly, both ships were found on the south side of King William Island, even though a note was left behind on the north end of the island.
King William Island is roughly triangular (with one apex pointing north). The Arctic Ocean is relatively shallow in the Canadian Archipelago, and prevailing westerly winds drive sea ice into the shallow passages. These are sometimes blocked for years. The “trick” to navigating the Northwest passage is to go along the east side of King William Island where the water — protected by the island — stays ice free for the longest, and then to run west along the south side of the island, continuing on until you reach the open waters of the Beaufort Sea. This is how Amundsen made it the first time. He wintered in a harbor along the lower east coast of the island. The location of Terror and Erebus suggests they got stuck in ice on the west side of the island, and were carried south without ever breaking free. So I wonder if they made a critical mistake from which recovery was not possible (not that they would have known that “trick” at the time).
Now that the ships have been found, the new mystery is how they got there. Terror looks like it was abandoned in ship-shape, and was found in a natural harbor. I wonder how the ice carried it south, then east, then north into the harbor without crushing it.
Also, the note indicating abandonment was found on the northern corner of the island. Yet most artifacts were found on land to the south … much closer to the ships’ final resting places. Did some men stay with the ships? Did the sea ice open for a week or two, permitting one last sail of a hundred miles or so. Or did the men proceed south, while the ships were pushed along parallel to them, and perhaps not wish to stray to far from them?
Would you believe I can recommend a favorite novel about the expedition? Try The Terror by Dan Simmons.
Now if they'd just get their act in gear, and premiere the TV series based on the book. It had been scheduled for as early as 2015, but now they say 2017.