Wreck of Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ Discovered in Icy Antarctic Depths

Researchers captured stunning photographs of the century-old wreck, still intact almost two miles beneath the waters of the Weddell Sea

A view of the stern of the underwater ship, with the letters ENDURANCE visible underneath weathered wood, starfish and other sea creatures
Researchers discovered the wreck of Ernest Shackleton's Endurance, the team announced this week. The ship was last seen by Shackleton's crew in 1915 before it slipped under the icy surface.  Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic

A team of researchers has discovered the wreck of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance vessel on the Antarctic sea floor. Carried out by the Endurance22 Expedition and announced this week by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust, the exciting discovery puts an end to a century-old maritime mystery.

Scientists used submersibles to capture images and video of the shipwreck, which is protected as a historic site and will remain undisturbed, Henry Fountain reports for the New York Times. It rests 9,842 feet below the surface of the Weddell Sea, a pocket of the Southern Ocean east of the Antarctic Peninsula, reports Lilit Marcus for CNN.

“We have made polar history with the discovery of Endurance, and successfully completed the world’s most challenging shipwreck search,” says expedition leader John Shears in a statement.

A view of a small ship leaning sideways in the background. In the foreground, a huge expanse of chunks of ice
Endurance immobilized in pack ice, as captured by crew photographer Frank Hurley in 1915 Photo by Frank Hurley / Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge / Getty Images

Endurance was last seen in 1915, when Irish-British explorer Shackleton (1874-1922) and his 27 men watched in dismay as the ship sank into the icy depths. The crew's mission, as members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, was a daring plan to reach the South Pole by traveling over the then-unmapped terrain of the East Antarctic.

Charismatic, reckless and obsessed with the South Pole, Shackleton was a major figure in what came to be known as the heroic age of Antarctic exploration in the early 20th century, “which included treks by Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 was the first to reach the pole, and by Robert Falcon Scott, a Briton who died after reaching it a month later,” per the Times. Shackleton and his crew set off from South Georgia island in 1914 despite warnings from whalers that the ice conditions in Weddell Sea were some of the “worst in memory,” per the American Natural History Museum.

Dogs sit and appear to look at the sinking wreck of Endurance, in a sepia toned image
As spring arrived in the southern ocean, ice began to crush Endurance and damage the ship beyond repair. Photo by Frank Hurley / Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge / Getty Images

Disaster struck in 1915 when the ship became trapped in the pack ice. For ten months, the immobilized vessel floated along while crew members camped on ice floes and waited for their surroundings to thaw. But as spring arrived in September, the pressure of the shifting ice began to warp, crush and twist the boat’s wooden frame.

By October, the ship had flooded beyond repair and all hopes of a return trip were lost, as Kieran Mulvaney reports for History.com.

“She’s going, boys,” a crewmember reportedly cried in October as the hull was rent to pieces. “It’s time to get off.” The ship eventually slipped beneath the surface on November 21,1915.

Shackleton’s subsequent voyage to rescue his crew went down in history as one of the greatest examples of grit, leadership and luck in the annals of Antarctic expeditions. First, the crew survived a harrowing five days at sea to land three lifeboats at Elephant Island, where they set up a makeshift camp. Shackleton and five others then navigated a treacherous 800-mile journey on a small whaling boat to reach help on South Georgia island.

That open-sea journey, navigated by Capt. Frank Worsley, is considered “one of the epic small boat voyages ever undertaken across some of the steepest, harshest seas in the world,” according to scholar Julian Dowdeswell. Thanks to Shackleton’s efforts and those of his crew, all 28 men survived and were rescued in 1917.

An aerial view of an enormous 'icebreaker' ship cutting through a patch of white ice
Researchers searched for the Endurance on a South African polar research vessel, the S.A. Agulhas II. Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust / James Blake

Biographers and historians have chronicled the details of the Endurance saga for years. But the precise location of the wreck of the Endurance itself remained a mystery—until now. With contemporary technology at their disposal and captain Worsley’s notes in hand, Endurance22 set out in February to discover the site of the Endurance wreck.

The team traveled aboard the S.A. Agulhas II, a South African icebreaker and polar research vessel. The $10 million project was funded by an anonymous private individual, according to the Times.

Three men sit around a set of computer screens showing infrared and color footage of the wreck
Researchers used two submersible crafts to scan the Antarctic sea floor for signs of the shipwreck.  Esther Horvath

They searched for two weeks, using two submersible crafts to scan the sea floor in a 150-square-mile area. Researchers discovered the first signs of the shipwreck a few days ago, per the Times. The site where Endurance eventually sank turned out to be just four miles south of where Worsley, the ship’s captain, had predicted it lay, per CNN.

Cold Antarctic temperatures have kept the 144-foot, three-masted wooden ship in stunning condition, scientists report. Images reveal that the bold capital letters of the ship’s name are still intact and visible above the stern.

“Without any exaggeration this is the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen—by far,” marine archaeologist and expedition director Mensun Bound tells BBC News’ Jonathan Amos.

“It is upright, well proud of the seabed, intact, and in a brilliant state of preservation,” Bound adds. “You can see a porthole that is Shackleton's cabin. At that moment, you really do feel the breath of the great man upon the back of your neck.”

A view of a small submersible craft being lowered into icy water
Researchers used two submersible crafts to gather footage of Endurance without touching or disturbing the historic wreck.  Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust / Esther Horvath

Experts flocked to Twitter to express congratulations and offer analyses. Marine biogeographer Huw Griffiths posted a crowdsourced thread where he identified Antarctic deep-sea creatures visible in the photos of the wreck, including “huge” Antarctic sea anemones and sea squirts.

Deep-sea polar biologist Michelle Taylor of Essex University tells BBC News that the creatures, which include brittlestars and crinoids, are “all filter feeding from the cool deep waters of the Weddell Sea.”

A view of the bow of the ship, covered in some sea creatures but with its wheel and railings clearly distinguishable
The wreck is remarkably well-preserved, researchers report.  Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust and National Geographic

Others described an ecstatic mood onboard when the team discovered the wreck. “I got goose bumps,” wrote Stefanie Arndt, a sea ice physicist who participated in the expedition, on Twitter. When the wreck was first spotted, she was at work with fellow researchers on the ice nearby—“just where Shackleton’s men have been.”

“The footage is breathtaking,” Arndt added. “I am overwhelmed.”