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Search begins for the world’s most unreachable shipwreck

A century after Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance sank in the waters of Antarctica, resulting in one of the greatest survival stories.

Dogs watching Endurance in the final stages of its drift, shortly before it sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea. Source - Royal Grographic Society/Photo by Frank Hurley. Public Domain
Dogs watching Endurance in the final stages of its drift, shortly before it sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea. Source - Royal Grographic Society/Photo by Frank Hurley. Public Domain

A century after Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance sank in the waters of Antarctica, resulting in one of the greatest survival stories in the history of exploration, a team of modern adventurers, technicians and scientists are setting sail to find the wreck.

As part of the polar explorer’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition between 1914 and 1917, Shackleton was expecting to make the first land crossing of Antarctica. The plan was for Shackleton and a small party to journey across the vast Antarctic ice sheet to the South Pole, as Roald Amundsen had done in 1911, but then keep going, to the Ross Sea on the other side of the continent.

However, when Shackleton left the whaling station at Grytviken on South Georgia Island on December 5, 1914, in his bid to cross Antarctica, little did he know that a year-and-a-half later, the next bit of land he touched (other than remote Elephant Island) would be that very same South Georgia Island he had left from.

Shackleton never set foot on the Antarctic continent. but the story of what happened in between constitutes one of the most stupendous polar survival sagas of all time. As the BBC describes the story, “It’s the stuff of legend. That’s the appeal.”

Route of Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (with the ship Endurance), fourth English expedition in 20th century in Antarctica. Source – Bourrichon. CC SA 3.0.

The loss of the Endurance

The Endurance was a 144 foot (44 meters) long three-masted barquentine Shackleton and his crew of 27 men and one cat sailed for the Antarctic on the 1914–1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. At that time, the Endurance was considered ti be the strongest ship ever built.

Two days after leaving South Georgia, Endurance encountered polar pack ice and progress slowed to a crawl. For weeks Endurance worked its way through the pack, averaging less than 30 miles (48 kilometers) per day. By January 15, 1915, Endurance was within 200 miles (320 km) of her destination, Vahsel Bay. 

The following morning, a gale sprang up, forcing the Endurance to take shelter near a grounded iceberg. By January 18, the gale began to ease and Endurance set the topsail with the engine at slow. Progress was slow.

Endurance encountered the ice pack a few hours later. It was decided to move forward and work through the pack, and at 5:00 pm Endurance entered it. This proved to be the beginning of the end.

Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic – last moments of the Endurance in 1916. Source – Library of Congress – Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a19376. Public Domain

The gale increased in intensity and kept blowing for another six days from a northerly direction towards land. By January 24, the pack ice had succeeded in compressing itself around the ship so that the Endurance was icebound as far as the eye could see in every direction.

After being ensnared in sea ice for over 10 months the Endurance succumbed to its fate, being crushed and sinking 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) below the surface. The crew managed to escape by camping on the sea ice until it ruptured.

The crew decamped to the ice, emptied Endurance of food and stores and almost everything else, including three open lifeboats, before it sank in November 1915.

The following April, as the ice broke up, all 28 men sailed in the lifeboats to Elephant Island, a rocky outcropping north of the Antarctic Peninsula. From there Shackleton, Worsley and four others, enduring freezing weather and rough seas, sailed one of the 22-foot boats 800 miles to the nearest inhabited island, South Georgia.

After crossing the mountains of South Georgia, they reached their starting point and Shackleton sent boats back to rescue the rest of his crew. And the rest is history.

Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic. After Shackleton reached South Georgia Island, he sent boats back to rescue the remainder of his crew on Elephant Island. Source – Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a11986. Public Domain

The Endurance22 Expedition

Thanks to the work of Endurance’s captain and navigator, Frank Worsley, who with basic navigational tools was able to determine the ship’s location around the time it sank, as being 68°39’30.0″ South and 52°26’30.0″ West. This means the the wreck is in a 7-mile by 14-mile zone in the western Weddell.

We have known where the grave of the Endurance is located, but have never been able to see it. But that is not the major difficulty a new expedition will encounter. No, it is the sea ice itself.

The cruel, evil sea-ice, as Shackleton described it – squeezed, snapped and then swallowed his polar steam ship – and has managed to keep it from prying eyes for a little over one hundred years. 

Even in this age of satellites and metal icebreakers, locating the Endurance has represented an impossible task. “Believe me, it’s quite daunting,” says Mensun Bound, the marine archaeologist who’s about to set out on yet another search attempt.

The mission will be conducted from the polar research and logistics vessel, S.A. Agulhas II, which is owned by the South African Government’s Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE).. Source – Endurance22 Expedition.

“The pack ice in the Weddell Sea is constantly on the move in a clockwise direction. It’s opening, it’s clenching and unclenching. It’s a really vicious, lethal environment that we’re going into.”

Bound is part of a crew of 46 and a 64-member expedition team aboard a South African icebreaker, the Agulhas II, set to leave Cape Town on Saturday, bound for the Weddell Sea, according yo the New York Times.

“It’s the most unreachable wreck ever,” Bound says, “Which makes this the greatest wreck hunt of all time.” He puts the wreck of the Endurance on a level with the sinking of the Titanic.

 It’s a relic of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, when adventurers undertook elaborate, risky and wildly popular expeditions to the continent and the pole. Some, like Roald Amundsen, succeeded. Others, like Robert Falcon Scott, died in the process.

The Leader. Ernest Henry Shackleton. Image dated 1920. Source – Author Ernest Henry Shackleton Photograph by F. Hurley Public Domain

The Endurance22 expedition to find it, financed at a cost of more than $10 million by an anonymous donor, will have less than two weeks to locate the wreck once the icebreaker reaches the Weddell Sea. 

If Endurance is found, the drones will take photographs and videos and make precise laser scans of the wreckage. But the site won’t be disturbed, as it has been declared a historic monument under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty, an international agreement signed in 1959.

“We know pretty much where we need to go,” said John Shears, leader of Endurance22, who is making his 25th expedition to Antarctica. And so far this season (it is the Antarctic summer) satellite imagery shows the pack ice has not been too bad. “We’re very optimistic that we’ll get over the wreck site with the ship,” Mr. Shears said.

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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