Ernest Shackleton’s Last Ship, Quest, Discovered Off the Coast of Canada

The famed explorer died of a heart attack aboard the ship near South Georgia Island in 1922, and it sank in the north Atlantic Ocean in 1962

Black and white photo of ship with the word QUEST on it
After Shackleton's death, the ship was used for seal hunting, Arctic research and rescue missions. British Arctic Air Route Expedition / Royal Canadian Geographical Society

Famed explorer Ernest Shackleton had already completed three successful expeditions to Antarctica and was in the early stages of a fourth when he died of a heart attack in January 1922. Shackleton, 47, was found dead in his bed aboard the ship Quest while it was anchored off the coast of South Georgia Island.

After Shackleton’s death, the Norwegian-built, schooner-rigged steamship was used for seal hunting, Arctic research and rescue missions, until it wrecked off the northeast coast of Canada on May 5, 1962. Thick sea ice was the culprit, piercing the ship's hull and sinking it. Fortunately, all of the crew members aboard at the time survived.

Now, researchers say they have located the Quest’s final resting place. Using sonar, a team led by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society found the wreck 1,280 feet below the surface of the northwest Atlantic Ocean roughly 15 nautical miles off the coast of Labrador. It’s sitting on its keel, with its broken mast lying on the seafloor nearby.

Sonar image of a shipwreck
The team used sonar to search a 24-square-nautical-mile search area. Royal Canadian Geographical Society

"This is now a part of Canadian cultural heritage, Newfoundland cultural heritage, [and] world cultural heritage,” says David Mearns, who served as search director for the project, to CBC News’ Mike Moore and Elizabeth Whitten. “It's a very, very significant shipwreck."

The team had only been searching for Quest for five days—while sailing aboard the research vessel Leeway Odyssey—when their sonar system detected something on the sea bed. In the future, researchers hope to return to the site to take photos of the wreck with remotely operated underwater vehicles.

Two years ago, researchers found another of Shackleton’s ships, the Endurance, on the Antarctic sea floor. The Endurance, which was larger than the Quest, sank into the chilly Weddell Sea 1915 as Shackleton and his crew of 27 men watched helplessly from nearby sea ice. The vessel’s sinking set the stage for one of the most improbable—and impressive—survival stories of all time.

By the time Endurance sank, it had already spent 10 months trapped in pack ice—while Shackleton and his men desperately tried to free it. Eventually, though, the shifting ice began to take its toll on the wooden ship, which began to twist and take on water. The men had no choice but to abandon ship.

Shackleton and his crew piled into three lifeboats, then made a difficult five-day journey to uninhabited Elephant Island. There, they survived on seal, seaweed and penguins. With no hope of being rescued, Shackleton and five men sailed 800 miles to a whaling station on South Georgia Island. Four months later, he returned to Elephant Island and rescued his crew. All 28 men survived the ordeal.

Graphic map showing location of Quest shipwreck
Researchers used the ship's last-known position, as well as historical maps and logs, to aid in their search. Royal Canadian Geographical Society

“After Endurance was found, a lot of Shackleton buffs all over the world … immediately turned to Quest,” says John Geiger, who helped lead the recent search, to the Guardian’s Campbell MacDiarmid. “‘Where’s Quest? Can we find it?’”

While smaller than its predecessor, Quest was heralded at the time for its technological innovations. Wireless radio equipment, electrical rigging, and a seaplane were all a part of its initial Shackleton-led expedition.

Researchers used the Quest’s last-known position, as well as historic maps, logs and data, to narrow its possible location. They considered where weather conditions and currents might have pushed the vessel after it sank. In the end, after searching an area spanning 24 square nautical miles, they found the ship roughly 1.5 miles from its last known position.

Shackleton’s granddaughter, Alexandra Shackleton, supported the mission to look for Quest and told BBC News’ Jonathan Amos she felt “relief and happiness” upon learning the ship had been found.

"For me, this represents the last discovery in the Shackleton story,” she added. “It completes the circle.”

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