Exploration, adventure and tragedy

Trapped by ice | Contemporary navigation | The expeditions

The Canadian ArchipelagoThe Canadian Archipelago (indicated by the red square)

For over 300 years explorers searched for a passage through the Arctic, hoping to shorten the time and cost of sailing to and from markets such as China. By the 19th century, explorers had found their way into the Canadian Archipelago, and were looking for a sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – the North-West Passage.

Read about all the expeditions below.

Trapped by ice

HMS 'Discovery' in ice during Sir George Nares' Arctic expedition, 1875HMS 'Discovery' in ice during Sir George Nares' Arctic expedition, 1875
Repro ID P39587
The greatest challenge to explorers was sea-ice, which blocked the channels between the islands during winter and remained frozen in bad summers. It could damage or crush ships. Explorers could die of starvation or vitamin deficiency if their ships were stuck in ice for several years. An expedition led by John and James Clarke Ross in 1829 survived an incredible four years trapped in freezing conditions.

In the early 20th century Roald Amundsen finally navigated a passage over the course of three years and in a tiny boat. His achievement was the culmination of one of the most extraordinary quests in the history of maritime exploration. However, as a route for commercial shipping the passage has remained a pipe-dream – until now.

Contemporary navigation of the Passage

In October 2007 BBC journalist David Shukman joined a large Canadian Coast Guard research vessel which took 8 days to make the journey. Read his diary account on the BBC website.

The expeditions

Read a short overview of all of the expeditions in search of the North-West Passage below. Follow the links to view maps and read more about each expedition.

Dates Explorer Short description
Martin Frobisher The English search for the North-West Passage began in earnest with this expedition… Read more 
John Davis Davis travelled deep into Cumberland Sound but could not find the Passage. He returned twice… Read more
Henry Hudson Hudson's crew became the first Europeans to winter in the Canadian Arctic. The crew later mutinied… Read more
Thomas Button Button’s expedition charted much of the west coast of Hudson Bay, wintering at Port Nelson. Button discovered an opening in the north-west corner of the bay, but decided it was not the entrance to the Passage… Read more
William Baffin, Robert Bylot After an unsuccessful first attempt, Baffin guessed that the passage would be found up Davis Strait and tried agian in 1616… Read more
Jens Munk Danish captain Jens Munk was frozen in for a disastrous winter on the west coast of Hudson Bay. All but three of the crew died of scurvy… Read more
1631 Luke Foxe Foxe traversed almost the entire western shore of Hudson Bay but did not discover a route through the Passage… Read more
Thomas James Fearing his ship would be ruined by ice and storms, James sank her and the crew built cabins on Charlton Island. Four died… Read more
James Knight Knight’s expedition never returned. The two ships reached Marble Island; their wrecks were found at the bottom in 1991–92… Read more
Christopher Middleton Middleton discovered Wager Bay but concluded it was not part of the North-West Passage… Read more
William Moor Moor’s expedition bore out Middleton’s conclusion that Wager Bay was not part of the Passage… Read more
Samuel Hearne Hearne became the first European to arrive at the Arctic Ocean overland, and concluded that any passage must lie much further north… Read more
James Cook In mid-August the expedition was halted by ice and had to turn back. An argument with Hawaiian natives led to his death… Read more
1818 John Ross Ross entered Lancaster Sound but turned back, claiming he had seen a ridge of mountains enclosing the inlet… Read more
William Edward Parry Parry’s first voyage entered Lancaster Sound and sailed through the mountains Ross had said enclosed the inlet. He returned twice more… Read more
John Franklin Franklin’s first overland journey hit difficulties and there were accusations of murder and cannibalism. His second land expedition was more successful… Read more
John and James Clarke Ross Ross and his nephew's ship became permanently stuck in the ice. They found the magnetic North Pole and finally abandoned ship in 1832… Read more
1845 John Franklin Franklin's ships became stuck in the ice, on the brink of success of navigating the North-West Passage. All perished… Read more
Robert McClure From a high point on the north coast of Banks Island, they saw Melville Island and the waters of Melville Sound reached by Parry. The North-West Passage had finally been found… Read more
Roald Amundsen When Amundsen met a whaling ship from San Francisco coming in the opposite direction he knew he would complete the North-West Passage… Read more