Antarctic Research Ship to Search for Wreck of Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’

The ship sunk in pack ice in 1915, setting off one of exploration’s most epic survival tales

Endurance Sinking
The Endurance sinking in 1915 Wikimedia Commons

The polar exploration ship Endurance has not been seen since 1915, when it was crushed by sea ice in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea during a failed Trans-Antarctic crossing by Ernest Shackleton. But in 2019, Jonathan Amos at the BBC reports that a team of scientists will attempt to locate the wreck when they visit the area to study the Larsen C Ice Shelf, the mega-iceberg that broke off the continent last July.

The S.A. Agulhas II should reach the area in January or February as part of the Weddell Sea Expedition 2019. But the search for the remains of Endurance will be contingent on if the crew has the time and opportunity to send an autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to the right location.

“[I]f we can get them in range of where Endurance is thought to be, we will send them under the ice to do a survey,” Julian Dowdeswell, director of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, tells Amos. “They are fitted with downward-looking multi-beam echosounders, which can map out on a grid the shape of the seafloor. You look at that for any signs of the ship and then focus in with cameras if you find something interesting.”

The final position of the ship when it sunk November 21, 1915 is believed to be about 100 to 150 nautical miles from Larsen C, making the ship an irresistible target. If it is found, it’s likely to be in excellent condition, reports Henry Bodkin at The Telegraph. That’s because the Antarctic Circumpolar Current may have kept wood-boring sea worms from damaging the wreck, which, if discovered, will be declared a protected historic monument. “If the expedition finds the wreck we will survey, photograph and film it and document its condition,” Dowdeswell says. “If there are deep-water marine species colonizing the wreck, the marine biologists may try to obtain scientific samples using the Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV), if that can be deployed above the site from the ship. However, we will not remove any items from the wreck.”

At the time of its construction in Norway in 1912, the Endurance was the strongest ship ever built, with an 85-inch oak keel. However, the design was not right for sea ice. That design flaw led to one of the most epic survival stories ever recorded. Shackleton planned to take the Endurance into the Weddell Sea where he would begin the first trans-Antarctic crossing. But on January 18, 1915, just days after setting sail from a whaling station on South Georgia Island, the Endurance was caught in pack ice. The crew of 28 lived aboard the ice-bound ship most of the year. As sea ice pressure increased, however, the hull of the ship began to crack. In November, it sank and the crew established camp on an ice float. By April they were able to reach Elephant Island, where Shackleton and five other crewmembers decided to sail a lifeboat, the James Caird, 800 miles to South Georgia to arrange a rescue. They reached the island 17 days later, but had to undertake and epic 36-hour crossing of the island’s icy mountains to reach the station. In August, 1916, 22 months after their ordeal began, a small Argentinean steamer was finally able to pick up the half-starved crew from Elephant Island.

Ryan Wilkinson at the Press Association reports that conditions in the area are still treacherous, even for modern ships. Other attempts to study the Larsen C shelf have been turned back by ice, and there’s not guarantee the Agulhas II will make it either. Alexandra Shackleton, the explorer’s granddaughter tells Wilkinson she would be eager to see images from the ship, but she’s not holding out too much hope. “People plan to do things in the Antarctic and the Antarctic decides otherwise, as my grandfather found,” she says.

Recently two other famous lost polar exploration wrecks were discovered. In 2015, the H.M.S. Erebus was discovered in Arctic Canada, followed by the H.M.S. Terror in 2016. Those ships were part of the doomed 1848 Franklin expedition searching for the Northwest Passage.

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